Not Just A Pretty Face

16th April 2010

Botox has a lot to answer for – and not just in the beauty industry.

Heather Harris examines the contents of that needle, and explains some of its less well known applications.

Never mind babies’ bottoms – celebrity foreheads are the new barometer of smoothness. At the recent Oscars ceremony, whether they’d won or lost the expression remained the same – a neutral tightness previously only seen in little girls whose swimming hats were too small.

Botox is the new elixir of youth. No more lotions and potions… just a small prick in the forehead, or between the eyebrows, and frown lines and money disappear in seconds.

“I couldn’t resist it when I saw a local beauty salon wanted human guinea pigs to test their Botox on,” said 40-year old Wendy (presumably the rodents themselves have a worry-free life, so no wrinkles to zap). “I had my first lot eight years ago and from then on was hooked. It’s only temporary so I’ve had six more sessions. I can’t believe anyone just has one go,” she told me, attempting a quizzical look.

Sue, 45, disagreed. She did her research and paid ‘several hundred pounds’ to a Harley Street cosmetic surgeon to be the man behind the syringe. “But it hurt, and it gave me droopy eye lids,” she said with a frown. This is just one of the not often mentioned side-effects, along with puffiness of the lids and paralysis of the face (think Anne Robinson).

“It put me off ever having it again, even though my friends all were, and looking much younger,” she said, acknowledging my suggestion that she should simply swap friends.

You have to hand it to the Cosmetic Surgeons and Botox manufacturers: they have certainly done an impressive job in marketing this magic liquid with its unlikely ingredients. How many women (and, according to recent research, an increasing number of men) actually realise that it’s no coincidence that its name sounds like ‘botulism’?…

…because that’s exactly what it is – neat food poisoning injected into your head. And it gets worse. In Latin, ‘botulus’ means sausage, and in the 1800s when this bacteria was first discovered it was known as ‘sausage poison’, as it grew in improperly handled or prepared meat products.

In fact, its first productive medical use wasn’t discovered until 1822, by a sweaty German doctor called Justinius Kerner. He found that injections of this poison could be used to stem the flow of excessive perspiring – something that it’s still used for today (ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose armpit stains at Party Conferences were a constant source of tabloid scorn, may care to take note).

From armpits, Botox moved upwards, eventually reaching the forehead. By the late 1960s, it was being used in American clinics for the treatment of squints, and in 1987 a Canadian Ophthalmologist, Dr. Jean Carruthers, became the saviour of ageing celebs everywhere when she saw that a ‘side-effect’ of this treatment was the reduction of crow's feet and wrinkles around the eyes.

From then on, the path to success was all smooth and peachy. In 2009, The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery rated treatment with botulinum toxin as ‘the most popular aesthetic procedure in the U.S’.

An eyebrow-raising 2.55 million Americans underwent a Botox treatment in 2009, an increase of 3.8% on 2008 figures. There are no similar statistics available for the UK, but it’s likely that Botox is also the number one procedure here (but the difference is that we’ll all swear blind that our baby-smooth skin is all down to Nivea and cold water).

As one local GP, trained two years ago in ‘sausage poison’ administration, told me, “I used to treat six people a month and now it’s about 25. Most are women aged between 35 and 50 but the youngest was 29. About 15 percent are men, who want to look less stressed rather than younger.”

As a GP, he keeps his Botox work separate, but views it as “an individual’s right to spend their money on something which is non-essential yet works better than any cream to erase deep wrinkles.”
“Looking at it scientifically,” he continues, “I believe it’s safe if administered by an experienced doctor or nurse. It annoys me when ill informed people just label it a ‘poison’ [whoops…] with no reference to the controlled manner in which it’s used… any drug can be hazardous if given incorrectly or in overdoses. For example, to reduce wrinkles on the average women takes 55-70 units of Botox, while several hundred units could be injected into a child with Cerebral Palsy (CP) to alleviate spastic muscle contractions…”

…my child, in fact. Born at 24 weeks, my son, now aged 13 and with a permanent frown (to match the teenage shrug and grunt), had the treatment not in his forehead, his sweaty armpits or his roving eyes but his legs.

In 2003, US researchers discovered that the botulism toxin relieves CP symptoms by reducing tightness in the muscles (in my son’s case, his Achilles). This gives more movement and increases the muscles’ stretch (allowing him to walk better). Just as with cosmetic use, it works by blocking the signals that would normally tell the muscles to contract. In the US study, 250 children with CP were injected and 86% ‘demonstrated improvements in symptoms of muscle spasticity after the injections’.

Like my own son, his 12-year old friend (another of the 400 people in the UK with this disability) also has Botox treatment. As his mother explains, “Since he was nine, David has been injected twice a year in his calves and thighs under general anaesthetic. This relaxes the muscles in his ankles, so they can be moved to the correct position for walking. Then his legs are plastered.”

The plaster comes off two weeks later and David has to do plenty of exercises to make sure that the muscles don’t stiffen up and go back to turning outwards again. “It seems to work,” she adds, “so I always ask if they’ve got a spare squirt for my forehead!”

It’s ironic that she’s only joking when, arguably, the mothers of CP children have more reason than most to frown…

… but I can’t see myself ever going under the needle. I’d rather they continued to spend money on researching its use for medical reasons. As the American Neurologist who led the CP research said, “It’s very exciting to see the progress these kids can make. Some are able to hold a pen and write for the first time, use a computer touch screen or turn on a tap. They may not seem like big changes, but they can be life-changing for these kids and their families”

Compared to this who really gives a sausage about a few wrinkles?…

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