Neurosurgical Technique Relieves Excessive Sweating

January 26, 1998

CHICAGO --- Forget that adage about how men sweat but women perspire. We all sweat, and it's a good thing we do. Sweating controls body temperature. As our temperature rises, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates certain glands in the body, the eccrine sweat glands, to secrete water to the skin surface, where it cools the body by evaporation. There are about five million eccrine glands in the human body -- 2 million in the hands alone, where they also assist grip.

Emotional stress also stimulates sweating, particularly on the palms and forehead and in the armpits. But some people -- about 1 percent of the population -- sweat copiously following mild stimulation or none at all. They suffer from a disorder called hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating.

Hyperhidrosis can be an embarrassing and often occupationally debilitating condition that seems to be more common in people of Asian descent and in some cases may be hereditary. Its cause is unknown.

Northwestern neurosurgeon Jeffrey S. Schweitzer, M.D., has treated patients with hyperhidrosis so severe that their palms literally dripped sweat.

"For these patients, it can be impossible to hold a pen, to pick up a sheet of paper without soaking it or to touch other people," Schweitzer said. "Imagine how upsetting it is to shake hands with someone and see that person wipe his hands after touching yours. This is a daily event for patients with hyperhidrosis."

Schweitzer, assistant professor of surgery at Northwestern University Medical School and a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, treats hyperhidrosis by performing endoscopic surgery to remove the nerves that stimulate the sweat glands in the palms. The procedure is done through an endoscope inserted through a small opening in the chest wall. The patient is usually kept overnight in the hospital.

"The risks associated with this surgery are low, and the effect on the patient's self-image and ability to interact socially can be very gratifying," Schweitzer said.

The procedure is also highly effective, Schweitzer said, with well over 80 percent of patients showing significant improvement in sweating on the palms.

Northwestern University

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