Skinny jeans & nerve damage case studies have haunted me throughout my career

31 years ago, as a young medical news reporter for CNN, I was upset because a story I’d been working on was bumped from a newscast in favor of a story about a JAMA journal article of a single case study, “Tight-jeans meralgia: hot or cold,” about a woman experiencing nerve problems attributed to wearing jeans that were too tight.  A single case study dominated the news. I remember it like it was yesterday. (Actually, there had been a prior report that year in JAMA, “Meralgia Paresthetica and Tight Trousers,” in which the author wrote, “I have seen this problem in a number of truck drivers, most of whom were obese and wore tight-fitting denim jeans.”)

George Santayana famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I do remember the past, and I’m still doomed to repeat it.

skinny jeans news release w:borderToday, news organizations across the globe are reporting on a single case study, “Fashion victim: rhabdomyolysis and bilateral peroneal and tibial neuropathies as a result of squatting in ‘skinny jeans’ ,” in a journal published by BMJ, The Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry. Undoubtedly, a news release from BMJ raised journalists’ interest in this pressing international health issue.  The news release read:

Squatting in ‘skinny’ jeans for a protracted period of time can damage muscle and nerve fibres in the legs, making it difficult to walk, reveals a case study published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

Doctors describe a case of a 35 year old woman who arrived at hospital with severe weakness in both her ankles. The previous day she had been helping a relative move house, and had spent many hours squatting while emptying cupboards.

She had been wearing tight ‘skinny’ jeans and recalled that these had felt increasingly tight and uncomfortable as the day wore on.

Later that evening, she experienced numbness in her feet and found it difficult to walk, which caused her to trip and fall. Unable to get up, she spent several hours lying on the ground before she was found.

Her calves were so swollen that her jeans had to be cut off her. She couldn’t move her ankles or toes properly and had lost feeling in her lower legs and feet.

Investigations revealed that she had damaged muscle and nerve fibres in her lower legs as a result of prolonged compression while squatting, which her tight jeans had made worse, the doctors suggest.

The jeans had prompted the development of compartment syndrome—reduced blood supply to the leg muscles, causing swelling of the muscles and compression of the adjacent nerves.

She was put on an intravenous drip and after 4 days she could walk unaided again, and was discharged from hospital.

One woman.

Better in a few days.

International news.

skinny jeans news

TIME – “Here’s How Skinny Jeans Are Hurting Your Health” (Publisher’s note:  not my jeans.  Maybe my genes, but not my jeans.)

CBS News reported, “Jeans that feel vacuum-sealed can suck the life out of the body.” (Publisher’s note:  suck the life?  Really? Get a life.  Get some real news.)

The Los Angeles Times had this headline: “Fashionistas, beware: Hazards of skinny jeans revealed in new study.”

The Washington Post reported, “Blue jeans have been linked with health hazards for decades.”  (Publisher’s note:  Yes, just about the span of my failing-to-forget career. Note:  I did not say my unforgettable career. I wish I could forget some parts of it.)

Nancy Shute at NPR added this perspective:

In some cases, the only damage tight clothes will do is to your wallet.

Last fall, the Federal Trade Commission ordered to two companies to stop selling caffeine-infused shapewear, saying that the amped-up skivvies would not, as one firm claimed, “reduce the size of your hips by up to 2.1 inches and your thighs by up to one inch, and would eliminate or reduce cellulite and that scientific tests proved those results.”

The FTC disputed that claim, and ordered the companies to fork over $1.5 million to customers who had been lured in by the promise of effortless shrinkage.

I could go on with many more examples, but I’ve been squatting in jeans that suddenly feel too tight the whole time I’ve been writing this.

Time to stretch my legs – and my mind – in search of truly important health care news.  Somewhere, right?

Addendum on June 25:

Craig Silverman, founding editor of BuzzFeed Canada, interviewed me for his piece, “Why That Warning About The Dangers Of Skinny Jeans May Be A Big Fat Nothing.”

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Comments (3)

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John Finnegan

June 25, 2015 at 11:38 am

I recall a Seinfeld episode involving Kramer’s tight jeans. So, news cycles to comedy and back to news. Oscar Wilde was right: life imitates art, or at least comedy.

Jane Weaver

June 29, 2015 at 8:34 am

I get the urge to ask “why is this news” but the criticisms of the media coverage of this single case ring hollow. Those that didn’t directly report the case got to eat their cake by mocking outlets who did. That’s a major case of “we’re better than you but we still get to put skinny jeans in a headline for SEO so we win.”

    Gary Schwitzer

    June 29, 2015 at 8:47 am


    Thanks for your note.

    From an evidence-based perspective, the criticism of the news coverage of a single case study doesn’t ring hollow at all.

    And we weren’t the ones who put skinny jeans in the news. The journal – the journal news release – and the journalists who covered it were the ones who put it in the news and put it in the headlines.

    We have evaluated news coverage of health care issues for more than 9 years in an attempt to improve the public dialogue about health and health care. So there’s no mocking or “we’re better than you” going on here. We all need to do a better job of evaluating claims, evaluating evidence, and applying critical analysis.

    It’s ironic that, just as I complete this note, a leading health care journalist just Tweeted, “Love @garyschwitzer’s take on this.” Different strokes, different folks.