Dr. David Hepburn:
Leo, my Havanese dog (by the way, we Havanese owners are an uppity bunch and always use the word “Havanese” when referring to our “dog” so that you don’t think we are owners of a Shih-tsu or Deputy Dawg) wears his emotions on his butt. Happy, and his tail becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Sad and it wilts like a Viagra failure. Excited and it becomes a merry-go-round game to pursue, Frightened and it somehow makes him look bigger like a fuzzy toy rabbit, albeit a fierce-some one, of course.
But how important is a tail to we bipeds? In fact, what is your most useless organ? (My wife’s response was “What or who?”) Turns out we have several organs and tissue, that are vestigial, just junk in our trunk. Useless, useless, useless, Trump, useless…or are they?
The tailbone, more fun to call coccyx if you’re a ten year old tempting your naughty vocabulary, is a collection of five fused (or sometimes separate) vertebrae. These fused vertebrae are the only vestiges that are left of the tail that other mammals still use for balance (cheetah), communication, (lions) and, for some primates in Africa and DC, as a prehensile limb. However, the coccyx, unlike Washington, isn’t completely useless. It allows ligaments, tendons, and muscles to attach to it that have a few important functions, including the role it plays in enabling us to sit properly. The coccyx used to be removed when people injured them but nowadays it is rarely taken out.
There are cases of infants born with extra vertebrae, giving them tails. There are no real adverse health effects of such a tail, unless perhaps the child was born in the Dark Ages. In that case, the child and the mother, now considered witches, would’ve been killed instantly, which we usually file under adverse health effects.
The tonsils are another useless part of the body that can cause a bit of grief. Open your mouth wide and you’ll see a tonsil on each side of your throat, unless you’ve had them removed, in which case you’re much less likely to see them. Tonsils lurk about the back of your throat while adenoids hang out in the back of your nose. Tonsils and adenoids (T&A) are lymphoid tissues that are prone, in kids, to becoming infected and inflamed and as such were indiscriminate targets of scalpels.
Tonsillectomies would cause kids to miss school and eat way too much ice cream, making them sick yet again. Any child with a decent criminal bent could stretch this surgery-induced holiday to two weeks, particularly if you suggested that your coccyx was also sore. I am proud to say that I missed 136 days in Grade 3, just shy of the record set by Capone. But are they troublesome, evolutionary vestiges or ardent defenders of the body? Both tissues function in antibody production and cell-mediated immunity and might well be important as a lymphoid defense mechanism organ in the upper respiratory tract.
Doctors are now a little more reluctant to remove the tonsils or the adenoids no matter how badly Junior snores, snorts or schnoozles. When studies indicated that there was no decrease in the number of colds, sore throats, and other respiratory infections between children who had them removed, and those who did not, Benny & Jerry stocks completely tanked.
The appendix is a narrow, muscular tube that attaches to the large intestine. Its purpose was to digest cellulose back when we were cattle or sheep or dentists. But as we have advanced our diet to one of less prehistoric tree bark and more Snickers Bars, the appendix seems useless, unless you’re a surgeon who spends way too much time playing Blackjack. But recently it was discovered that the appendix actually stores good bacteria that can be used to repopulate the gut in cases of severe diarrhea.
It is a reservoir of probiotics! While not so important in countries not devastated by diarrheal diseases, those who live in nations with poor sanitation may need these in-house probiotics. The vermiform (meaning “worm”like) appendix really did resemble a worm when I was living in the jungles of Vanuatu and took out appendices that were jammed up by the disgustingly large Ascaris worms.
OK, enough for today as I have been sitting here way too long typing up this life-saving information and frankly… my coccyx needs some ice cream.