Horns

Biology Explained: Are Humans Growing Horns?

Recently the BBC cited a paper in a story about the impact of modern life on the skull and within days it became a global headline that teenagers were growing horns.

It’s an overstatement to call these growths ‘Horns’ as the growths are merely between 10 and 30 millimetres, which yes is noticeable

About a year ago a pair of researchers published a paper in Scientific Reports to little fanfare, in which they take note that a surprising number of young people are developing bone growths on the back of their skulls.

The researchers suggested that it was due to the amount of time spent looking down at our screens.

So, what did the research actually find?

In 2016 professors David Sahar and Mark Sayers from the University of the sunshine coast found out that about 40% of 218 people aged 18-30 had a bone growth near the base of the skull called an “enlarged external occipital protuberance,” or EEOP.

They built on this research in 2018 by examining x-rays of 1200 people from the ages 18-86, which showed that a third of these had growths.

People aged 18-30 were most likely to have these growths which surprised the researchers as they expected older adults to be at higher risk as written in their study.

Excessive Use of Phones

Horns

 

In theory, frequently tilting your heavy head forward to look at screens, instead of holding it upright as it’s meant to sit, may strain the neck and back of the head enough to result in bone growth in the surrounding tendons and ligaments.

However, neither study assessed an individuals’ phone use so, a definite conclusion cannot be drawn to connect the two. It is a hypothesis made by the researchers based on the demographics of frequent gadget users.

The researchers “haven’t provided the data to back up their claim,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, who studies human evolution and was not involved in the study.

On a basic level, the study has flaws, namely that it makes written claims that are not supported by the numbers, images and other data reported in the study itself.

The study doesn’t actually measure phone usage

“We hypothesize EEOP may be linked to sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets,” the authors stated.

“Our findings raise a concern about the future musculoskeletal health of the young adult population and reinforce the need for prevention intervention through posture improvement education.”

After the story went viral, various publications poked holes in the research, with tech news site Gizmodo pointing out that the use of the term “hypothesis” indicated that nothing has been proved about the paper’s findings.
This is the most basic flaw. The study does not measure the phone usage of its 1,200 patients.

The study assumes that the people age 18 to 30 in this study used their phones more than older subjects, based purely on the general habits of society. But Shahar and Sayers did not provide data on their subjects to support that assumption.

After the story went viral, various publications poked holes in the research, with tech news site Gizmodo pointing out that the use of the term “hypothesis” indicated that nothing has been proved about the paper’s findings.

The General Population

Sahar and Sayers write that the study “demonstrated the prevalence of EOP to be 33% of the total population” and that “our findings raise a concern about the future musculoskeletal health of the young adult population.”

The New York Times reported that although users’ spending a lot of time hunched over devices was known to cause pain, the study lacked a control group and thus couldn’t show cause and effect.

Moreover, the research also focused on a group that was already experiencing enough pain to undergo diagnostic x-rays for it. Thus, “it’s not clear what bearing the results have on the rest of the population.”

They worked from a database that was based on people who went to the chiropractor for help, so the study is not a random, representative sample.

A study must have a random, demographically representative sample in order to be applicable to the public-at-large. And these subjects did not represent a general population, or close to it.

The study isn’t studying horns. The study did not look at horns. A bone spur is not a horn. A horn is made of keratin, the same material you find in animal hooves, claws and hair.

What’s with the ‘Horn’ Headlines?

Horns

 

It’s an overstatement to call these growths ‘Horns’ as the growths are merely between 10 and 30 millimetres, which yes is noticeable but certainly not as dramatic as the mental image inspired by the headlines.

In addition, skull growths like these, although typically small ones, have been spotted plenty of times before. There are most common in men and typically seen among the elderly, but young people have them as well.

Are these growths a cause for concern?

A paper published in 2017 in the BMJ records that an occipital growth is normal, though sometimes painful, and

“often presents in late adolescence due to the growth spurts.” Bone spurs can also pop up all over the body, literally from head to toe.

Sayers told an Australian news website:

“The thing is that the bump is not the problem, the bump is a sign of sustained terrible posture, which can be corrected quite simply,”

As you would have thought, constant technology is damaging our posture. The occurrence of ‘text neck’ or neck strain associated with staring down at a screen, is widely reported, and plenty of people have experienced back pain after a day spent slouched over a laptop.

These issues are cause for concern, of course, but they’re not irreversible. It usually just takes a bit of mindfulness, stretching and muscle-strengthening (and maybe a workspace reorganization) to improve your posture and alleviate the pain that comes along with it.

Symptoms of Skull Base Tumour

Symptoms appear slowly as the tumour grows and puts pressure on vital structures in the brain such as the pituitary gland, the optic nerve, and the carotid arteries.

Specific symptoms depend on the type, location and size of the tumour which resembles horns.

For example, tumours involving the skull base and nose can affect breathing and sense of smell. Some tumours in the pituitary gland can affect vision and swallowing.

In general, common symptoms of skull base tumours include:

  • Headaches
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Altered sense of smell
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Hearing loss

Other symptoms may include:

  • Loss of balance
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Memory loss

What are the risk factors of skull base tumour?

There are no obvious causes for the development of skull base tumours. Risk factors may include:

  • Previous radiation therapy to the head to treat an infection of the scalp, or tumours of the head, neck or brain
  • Exposure to chemicals, including vinyl chloride, arsenic and herbicides
  • Certain genetic conditions

If you do experience any of the symptoms and feel worried or unsure, do contact your local GP. For information about skull based tumors or any of the symptoms mentioned, you can contact 111 which is a non-emergency line or check the NHS website. 

In an emergency, contact 999 immediately so that you can be given the proper care in a hospital.

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