Meet the woman with the golden touch. Believe it or not, the short squiggly bright-white lines on this X-ray show flecks of gold that have become embedded in her hands.
The story behind this image is explained in a medical case study published in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) this week.
The 58-year-old South Korean woman visited the hospital suffering from chronic joint pain and odd deformities in her hands and feet, an ailment she had been suffering from for around 40 years. At age 18, she started to treat her condition using a traditional Asian technique called “gold thread acupuncture”, involving the insertion of small pieces of sterile gold thread with an acupuncture needle (you can probably see where this story is going now).
You can also see in the X-ray how her hands have become deformed due to rheumatoid arthritis. This is caused by inflammatory cells of the immune system gathering around the joints, eventually hardening into a tough fibrous tissue. This tissue, known as pannus, slowly releases substances that can speed up the damage to the bone, cartilage, and ligaments.
There’s not much in the way of scientific evidence that gold threaded acupuncture can help you with this condition. Nevertheless, this treatment has a long history of treating joint pain that continues to this day. Oral and injectable gold treatments are also sometimes used.
“In East Asia and globally, acupuncture – including gold thread acupuncture – has long been used to treat joint pain. Oral and injectable gold preparations are also sometimes used,” Dr Young-Bin Joo and Dr Kyung-Su Park, the doctors who treated the woman, explained in their case report.
After doctors officially diagnosed the 58-year old with rheumatoid arthritis, she was treated with the more conventional combination of methotrexate and leflunomide, two drugs that help reduce the body’s immune system thereby dampening swelling around the joints.
The golden splinters remain in her hands.
Doctors have come across cases like this before, especially in East Asia where the practice is more common than elsewhere. In 2013, the NEJM reported another case study of a 65-year-old woman in South Korea who had tiny gold splinters within her knee after years of gold thread acupuncture treatment for her osteoarthritis.