Ig-Nobel Prize Winners – Medicine

It seems only fitting that we cover the winners of the category that could be considered the most currently relevant… Medicine.

In a world still blighted with COVID, never before has there been so many headlines and coverage of the field of medicine.

Which means, to win a prize for your research these days and grab any attention – you have to really, really do something spectacular.

A Quick Reminder – What are the Ig-Nobel Prizes?  

If you have read any of our previous articles on the subject of the Ig-Nobel Prizes – you can skip this section! If, however, you have never heard of this award ceremony then keep reading for a quick introduction. 

The Ig Nobel Prizes were set up to honour those people and projects that make people laugh, then think. The prizes are handed out for the weird, the imaginative, the unusual – anything that can spur people’s interest in science, medicine or technology. 

Usually, the ceremony is held every September as a gala-type event in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Unfortunately, in a Covid blighted world this was not possible so the entire event was streamed online.  

It is possible to watch the full event for free by clicking here. 

Previous ceremonies have had the prizes presented to recipients by Nobel Laureates in front of the massed 1100 spectators. Thousands more watch along online.  

The Medicine Prize

The team that undertook the award-winning research were comprised of members from the UK, Turkey, and Germany. The winners (Olcay Cem Bulut, Dare Oladokun, Burkard Lippert, and Ralph Hohenburger) accepted their prize in the online ceremony at the time stamp of 37:58.

The prize was handed over by Robert Lefkowitz, a Nobel laureate in the field of chemistry (2012) for the research that demonstrated that sexual orgasms can be as effective as decongestant medicines in improving nasal breathing.

The Medicine Prize – Background

According to the introduction of the paper (as well as with references to other research papers in the field) it has long been understood that there may possibly be a physiological connection between the nose and the genitals.

The theory of ‘reflex nasal neurosis’ was published well over 100 years ago by Wilhelm Fliess, a close friend of Sigmund Freud. The theory was discussed often and developed between the two scientists, with Freud being in recipient of two surgeries from Fliess.

Freud even referred the publicist Emma Eckstein for nasal surgery following a diagnosis of ‘nasal reflex neurosis’.

As you can imagine, like many other early surgeries, it was an obvious disaster. Eckstein ended up with a severely disfigured nose and recurrent nasal bleeding.

In hindsight – the ‘reflex nasal neurosis’ theory proposed by Fliess never really had any scientific validity…

Now, in modern medicine it is understood that physical exercise and hormonal changes can have an apparent effect on nasal airway resistance in both the short and long term. Interestingly, there have not yet been any studies investigating the impact of sexual activity on nasal breathing in comparison to the effects of a nasal decongestant.

A Brief Explanation of the Methodology

For the experiment (that took place in 2020), 18 male/female couples enrolled. All 36 participants were either health care workers and/or partners of health care workers and all signed informed consent paperwork prior to beginning.

In order to gather the data needed for this research – the team evaluated nasal breathing at 5 different times; Before sexual activity (which provided the baseline), directly following sexual activity, then at time intervals of 30 minutes, 1 hour, and 3 hours following sexual climax.

In order to compare the effectiveness against that of decongestant nasal spray, the exact same measurements were taken on the second day following use of spray. Then, to evaluate nasal breathing a visual analogue scale (VAS) was used – a measurement instrument designed to measure a characteristic that is believed to range across a continuum of values and cannot easily be directly measured – in combination with a portable rhinometric device.

Nasal Obstruction Symptom Evaluation (NOSE) questionnaires were used to assess any pre-existing nasal function impairment – scored on a range of 0 to 100, with lower scores indicating better nasal breathing. All the participants underwent an anterior rhinoscopy (inspection of the anterior portion of the nasal cavity) by an otolaryngologist, with none having undergone prior nasal surgery or any showing signs of nasal polyps.

Can Sex Improve Nasal Function? The Results

This is the first study to explore the link between sexual activity (with climax) and nasal breathing. The study did so by combining subjective measurements (VAS) and objective (Rhinometric) measurements over an extended time-period, with comparison to nasal decongestants providing an interesting comparative dataset.

Simply put – nasal breathing has shown to be improved following sexual intercourse with climax to the same degree as using a nasal decongestant. The effects were shown to last up to 60 minutes with the subjective VAS measurement and backed up further by the more objective rhinometric data – with nasal flow increasing and resistance decreasing immediately following, 30 minutes, and 60 minutes post-intervention.

Where the results differ more severely is at the three-hour mark – where the sexual intercourse nasal breathing had returned to the baseline level and the nasal decongestant group still retained significantly improved breathing.

Figure 1. Nasal breathing measured by both VAS and rhinometric flow before and after particular interventions (either sexual activity or nasal decongestant spray). Figure taken from Bulut et al., 2021

Figure 2. A comparison of nasal breathing across different time points; Before (baseline), Immediately (immediately following orgasm or decongestant), 30 min (30 minutes after orgasm or decongestant), 60 min (60 minutes after orgasm or decongestant), 3 hours (3 hours after orgasm or decongestant). Measured with Visual Analogue Scale (VAS). Figure taken from Bulut et al., 2021

Limitations and considerations

With this study there are some considerations mentioned that must be taken into account, most of which come as a result of the practical issues associated with such a sensitive study.

An example of this is that the researchers were not able to collect objective rhinometric data from all participants, likely due to the inability to focus on the device before and immediately following intercourse. To be fair, this is only natural…

The participant group for the study also raises a few concerns – as all of those involved were either health care professionals and/or partners of health care professionals, the study group does not really represent an equally distributed population.

There may too be a slight bias with this study in that the relatively high mean NOSE score (Nasal Obstruction Symptom Evaluation) and average VAS baseline may suggest that participants were selected from participants complaining of nasal obstruction. This could be the reason why they agreed to take part in the study, potentially causing a selection bias in the study population.

As collection of data was undertaken by participants at home with rhinometric devices, there is no way of guaranteeing compliance with guidelines. As there are multiple considerations to be aware of, the results of this study may not necessarily be generalisable.

However, this does not undermine the fascinating results of the study. Maybe the next time you find yourself with a stuffy blocked nose, you may be better of paying your partner a visit instead of the pharmacist…