Dr Phil Hammond, GP, lecturer and presenter of the BBC2 programme Trust me, I'm a Doctor

Most GPs have little time for research, and when you thumb through the contents of the College journal it isn't hard to see why.

But when revalidation and the post-Shipman hit squad come knocking, what better way to impress them with evidence that you've pushed back the boundaries of medicine. And what better place to start than audit of your patients' underwear.

I got the idea from a flustered radio GP who said how stressful it is for doctors to be faced with 'unsuitable pants', especially those festive stocking fillers from Ann Summers.

As a naive young medical student, I once encountered a woman with a pair that seemed to be missing part of the crutch. I assumed she must have snagged them alighting from her bicycle. Or perhaps they'd been specially designed by a gynaecologist to keep you warm during the speculum examination. Either way, I've chalked them down as a critical incident to share with the GMC.

A gynaecologist I worked with claimed to have proof of a link between colour of pants and likelihood of a sexually transmitted infection (black pants are apparently the riskiest).

But my all-time favourite piece of pant research – 'Effects of the monthly cycle on dressing behaviour in the cold' – is Japanese and comes courtesy of the Graduate School of Human Culture at Nara Women's University.

According to this study, Japanese women dress quicker and with thicker underwear when it's a bit parky. Amazing.

However, they're quickest and their underwear is thickest in the luteal phase of the monthly cycle (after the egg has been released) rather than the follicular phase (before release). Perhaps they just want to keep the egg warm.

The Japanese have also used pants to identify ancient corpses. One poor woman washed up after 7 months at sea. Genetic samples taken from her pubic bone were then compared with those in a stain on the unwashed pants found in her washing machine at the time of her disappearance.

The same forensic scientists have also used a mummified umbilical cord – saved as a birth souvenir – and a pubic hair discovered in a vacuum cleaner nozzle to solve similar mysteries.

Pant science can also betray the living – a French study managed to detect opiate drug traces in the gusset – but it can also come to your rescue.

An American woman was accused of shoplifting a pair of pants found in her pocket at a department store, but insisted they were a spare pair she was carrying for personal reasons. Fortunately, the Regional Criminalistics Laboratory at Kansas City Police Department developed a method for distinguishing between new and used pants using laser examination for biological staining and microscope examination for threadwear. She got off with her reputation in tatters.

Meanwhile, back in the surgery you'd be amazed how every pant tells a story.

Just check out the gusset of a threadworm sufferer under a high power field and you'll find it packed with eggs and perhaps the odd little wriggler.

And every doctor over 40 has seen the allergic damage a nickel fastener on a suspender belt can do.

A hypochondriac's pants are up and down like a bride's nightie, as they check for every stain imaginable. As a result, the elastic tends to be looser.

Tight pants may increase the risk of a DVT and they're also bad news for testicles, especially if they're synthetic (the pants, not the testicles). The combination of heat and electrostatic electricity caused by friction betwixt scrotum and polyester can play havoc with the sperm count.

Egyptian doctors have used this finding to develop a male contraceptive called the Jockstrap. It keeps the testicles hot and static in a tight sling while leaving the penis free to poke through a hole.

Fourteen volunteers wore the sling round the clock for a year, changing it only when it was soiled. After 140 days, their testicles had shrunk by a third, their ejaculation was pitiful and their sperm counts had fallen to zero. On a brighter note, they could all still manage an erection.

Guidelines in Practice, February 2001, Volume 4(2)
© 2001 MGP Ltd
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