Watched an action hero pop back a dislocated shoulder onscreen? Don't try it at home

Watched an action hero pop back a dislocated shoulder onscreen? Don't try it at home

The Hollywood-prescribed treatments for joint dislocation, bleeding, choking and hyperventilation may save the day in the movies. But they probably won't save you in real life, and they'll hurt – a lot.

Justice League Wonder Woman Batman
(Screen grab: Justice League)

You know that the actions depicted in the movies are often exaggerated for dramatic effect, and it would be preposterous to apply them in real life. Take how medical emergencies are portrayed, for example. How many times have you seen an action hero stop a bleeding gash with nothing more than a rag torn from his clothes? 

How did Hollywood even conceive such wild notions as "treatments" for their leading men and women? As it turns out, some of them do have their roots in reality as we found out from real-life heroes in the medical world.

POPPING BACK A DISLOCATED SHOULDER

You might recall the scene in the 2017 film Justice League where Wonder Woman popped Batman’s dislocated shoulder back into place. This onscreen DIY remedy was likely inspired by seeing people perform a joint reduction (medical speak for putting the joint back) in real life without the help of a medically trained person, said Dr Andy Wee, an orthopaedic surgeon with Parkway East Hospital and Mount Elizabeth Hospital. In fact, Dr Wee knows a rugby coach who is very familiar with putting back shoulder joints as such injuries are common in the sport. 

But should you try it out on your teammate or bang yourself against a wall to pop the joint back like Mel Gibson did in Lethal Weapon? 

In a word – no. You might cause more damage if you’re not familiar with the manoeuvre. “A dislocated joint usually results in a torn ligament and bleeding within the joint,” said Dr Wee. “If done wrongly, the reduction manoeuvre can fracture the adjacent bone or injure the nearby nerves.”

In other words, you might end up sending your friend into the operating theatre when typically, a dislocated joint can be managed without surgery.

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Also, not all joint reductions go smoothly, said Dr Wee. “The joint can be incompletely reduced, or there can be small chip fractures that need surgical treatment after joint reduction. These situations can predispose to repeated joint dislocations or the persistent loss of joint function,” said Dr Wee.

GIVING A HYPERVENTILATING PERSON A BAG TO BREATHE INTO

Why do people in the movies always hand the anxious, hyperventilating character a bag to breathe into? “In hyperventilation, the carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream drop too low and cause symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, chest tightness, palpitations, numbness and spasms,” said Dr Edwin Chng, the medical director of Parkway Shenton. 

“Breathing into a paper bag is hoped to increase the carbon dioxide level again by breathing in the same carbon dioxide you exhaled," he said.


But how well does that translate into real life? According to Dr Chng, it is important to “determine the cause of the hyperventilation and treat the underlying condition”, rather than hand the person a paper bag. 

“Rebreathing into a paper bag without knowing the exact cause of the hyperventilation may be dangerous as it can cause a drop in oxygen levels, especially in those with underlying lung and heart diseases. In fact, in patients with metabolic acidosis (when the body produces too much acid in the body) as a cause of the hyperventilation, breathing into a paper bag may potentially worsen the acidosis.”

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If you’re with someone who is hyperventilating, Dr Chng advised that your best course of action is to reassure the hyperventilating patient and explain the symptoms that he is experiencing. It is also a good idea to remove any stressors. But beyond that, let a doctor assess and manage the underlying condition accordingly, he said. 

DRAGGING SOMEONE OUT FROM UNDERNEATH A CAR OR RUBBLE

You can’t watch a Michael Bay movie or a medical drama on TV without seeing such a scene. It could be a car, collapsed building or a gunned-down alien spacecraft that has pinned down a character, prompting the hero to swoop in and extricate him from the tangle of glass and metal. 

Transformers movie
(Screen grab: Transformers)

While it is instinctive to want to drag the victim out from underneath a pile of rubble or overturned vehicle in real life, it is best that you leave that to the professionals, according to the Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF). “There are safety aspects to be considered before a trapped casualty in a road traffic accident or under a rubble can be moved,” said an SCDF spokesperson.

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“For example, are the structures around the casualty stable enough for the casualty to be moved? Trained rescuers and medical personnel would also assess the injuries of the casualty before moving him, and take steps to ensure that the move would not cause any aggravation to the injuries.”

Other than potentially aggravating the victim’s condition, the rescuer may also face safety hazards by springing into action without due care, added the SCDF spokesperson. In short, your best action is to call 995 for the SCDF.

STERILISING A NEEDLE OVER A FIRE BEFORE SUTURING A WOUND

Rambo self-suturing
(Screen grab: First Blood)

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Sylvester Stallone-headlining movie or the hit K-drama series Doctor John, you’ll be wincing as you watch the leading man sew himself up – all without the use of anaesthesia. And sometimes, it starts with “sterilising" the needle over a lit candle.

In reality, you should only attempt to suture yourself if evacuation to a medical facility isn't an option. “If you screw up, you could cause permanent tissue damage and a nasty infection,” said Dr Luanne Freer, the founder of the Everest Base Camp Medical Clinic, on Outside magazine. 

Also, sterilising a needle with fire does not provide complete protection from bacteria and other organisms, according to Healthline. High-pressure steam is the “most dependable” form of sterilisation, said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which, of course, isn’t readily available in most homes.

Surgical tools for suturing
(Photo: Pixabay/geudki)

Even if you have the sterilising down pat, you have to possess a high threshold for pain, tolerance for blood, the right know-how and the right tools (nope, your sewing needle won't do; doctors actually use a special curved needle). Suturing your own wound requires a certain technique (it’s definitely not cross-stitch) and a lot of prior practice. The moral of the story? Leave it to the professionals instead.

HITTING A CHOKING PERSON ON THE BACK

The best way to save someone from choking on food is to perform a Heimlich maneuver or at least thump him on the back, according to Hollywood. While the former is actually what healthcare professionals advocate (provided you know what you’re doing), “back blows could cause the obstruction to become more deeply lodged in the victim's airway”, said Dr Chng.

If the choking is mild, that is, the person can still speak, cry, cough or breathe, there may not be a need to execute the Heimlich manoeuvre at all, according to the UK-based NHS website. But do encourage the person to keep coughing to try to clear the blockage.

In the event that the airway is completely blocked, and the person can’t speak and can only make weak, high-pitched sounds, Dr Chng advised to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre “until the object is expelled or the victim becomes unresponsive”. Here’s how to execute it, according to Dr Chng:

  1. Stand behind the victim.
  2. Make a fist with one hand.
  3. Place your fist on the victim’s abdomen, slightly above the navel and well below the breastbone.
  4. Grasp your fist with your other hand.
  5. Deliver quick upward thrusts into the victim’s abdomen.
Source: CNA/bk

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