7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

The Reason Doctors Have Such Sloppy Handwriting

Rostislav_Sedlacek/iStock via Getty Images
Rostislav_Sedlacek/iStock via Getty Images

It seems counterintuitive that doctors—widely regarded as some of the smartest, most detail-oriented people out there—so often have horrible handwriting. From a patient’s standpoint, it could seem downright terrifying. If your pharmacist misinterprets your trusted physician’s chicken scratch, you could wind up with a dangerously high dosage of medicine, or even the wrong medicine altogether.

In 2006, the National Academies of Science's Institute of Medicine estimated that doctors’ sloppy handwriting was killing more than 7000 people per year, and preventable medication errors were harming around 1.5 million Americans annually. Many medical offices have since switched to electronic medical records and prescriptions, and some states have even required them to do so.

But that doesn’t tell us why doctors’ penmanship is so poor in the first place. One reason is because doctors have to write much more than we realize.

“In the medical field, if it’s not documented, it didn’t happen,” Celine Thum, medical director at ParaDocs Worldwide, told The Healthy.

If you’re the very first patient of the day, the record of your visit and any prescription slips you get might be perfectly legible. Ten hours and dozens of appointments later, however, your doctor’s hand muscles are probably pretty cramped.

The content they’re writing isn’t particularly easy to spell, either. If a doctor is jotting down glomerulonephritis, for example, they may not stop to make sure all those vowels are in the right places.

“We have so many technical terms that are impossible to write,” Thum said. “You sometimes scribble to cover the error.”

However, if a prescription looks indecipherable to you, it’s possible that your doctor is using shorthand that your pharmacist will immediately understand—like the abbreviation QD, from the Latin phrase for “one a day.”

If you’re confused about what the doctor has written on your prescription slip, you can always ask them to clarify aloud, and double-check that it matches what’s printed on your prescription bottle.

[h/t MSN]

The Unkindest Cut: The Chainsaw Was Invented to Assist With Difficult Childbirths

viafilms/iStock via Getty Images
viafilms/iStock via Getty Images

There’s always a price to be paid for innovation. Usually that amounts to some sleepless nights and lots of trial and error. But sometimes it means attempting to deliver babies with a chainsaw.

This dark chapter in agricultural history comes from Popular Science, which recently detailed how the motorized cutting tool populating Home Depot shelves came to be. In the 18th century, two Scottish surgeons named John Aitken and James Jeffray devised a solution they could employ when faced with difficult childbirths. Rather than use a knife to widen the pelvic area by slicing through cartilage and bone to extricate a stuck baby, the two developed a chainsaw to make cutting easier.

While this sounds ghastly, the doctors were actually trying to lessen the agony endured by women who needed their pelvic bone separated. The knife took a long time, while their device—a modified knife with serrated “teeth” on a chain—could cut through bone and tissue more quickly.

If circumstances warranted it, the doctor would grab the saw, which had a handle on both ends, and wrap the chain around the pelvic bone, pulling each handle so the chain would cut into the bone. Later, the device was outfitted with a hand crank. Thanks to this innovation, difficult births could be described as merely agonizing as opposed to extended torture.

The procedure was dubbed a symphysiotomy and remained in use in the medical field as surgeons noticed how efficiently it could work in other circumstances, like amputations. It lasted through much of the 19th century as part of a surgical toolbox until C-sections grew in popularity. In the 20th century, the principle was commandeered for less disturbing purposes like logging, with two-person saws weighing more than 100 pounds each. By the 1950s, those gave way to lighter models.

For all its discomfiting history, at least the chainsaw proved to be useful—which isn't something that can be said for all inventions purporting to aid in childbirth. In 1965, George and Charlotte Blonsky patented a device that acted as a human turntable, spinning so quickly it might induce the patient (or victim) into delivering their baby via centrifugal force.

[h/t Popular Science]

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