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.

Watch: Woman Plays Violin During Brain Surgery to Help Doctors Avoid Damaging Her Fine Motor Skills

Violinist Dagmar Turner played George Gershwin's "Summertime" and other selections during her brain surgery performance.
Violinist Dagmar Turner played George Gershwin's "Summertime" and other selections during her brain surgery performance.
Furtseff/iStock via Getty Images

When 53-year-old Dagmar Turner told neurosurgeons she was right-handed, they said that was no problem—the brain surgery they were planning to remove a tumor only ran the risk of affecting fine motor skills in her left hand. To Turner, a lifelong violinist and member of the Isle of Wight Symphony Orchestra, that was still very much a problem.

Turner told ITV News she suggested playing the violin during the procedure so the surgeons at King’s College Hospital in London could ensure they weren’t damaging coordination in either hand. They agreed.

According to NBC News, the violinist played George Gershwin's “Summertime” and selections by Gustav Mahler and Julio Iglesias while surgeons extracted the tumor from the right frontal lobe of her brain. BBC News reports that she’s been living with the growth since 2013, and doctors decided it was time to operate in November 2019.

You can watch her play in the video below. (The top of Turner’s head is completely obscured by plastic and other surgical materials, so there’s nothing graphic in the clip. Having said that, anyone who’s especially squeamish about the inside of an operating room should proceed with caution.)

Professor Keyoumars Ashkan, a neurosurgeon who helped plan the procedure, said in a statement from the hospital that the mid-surgery performance was a first for him.

“We perform around 400 resections (tumor removals) each year, which often involves rousing patients to carry out language tests, but this was the first time I’ve had a patient play an instrument,” he said. “We managed to remove over 90 percent of the tumor, including all the areas suspicious of aggressive activity, while retaining full function in her left hand.”

[h/t BBC News]

15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0
Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

In 1665, about a quarter of all Londoners died of the Great Plague—but bubonic plague was not the only deadly disease circulating in the city. A published register, called London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality, recorded the causes of death and the number of victims in London between December 20, 1664 and December 19, 1665. The systematic, parish-by-parish tally reveals the rapid spread of plague throughout the capital: a total of one victim, recorded in the first week, increased to 7165 during the week of September 12-19, 1665.

But quite a few Londoners met their fates in other ways. Here’s a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill those that Yersinia pestis couldn’t catch.

1. Winde

Winde is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, winde referred to paroxysms of severe gastrointestinal pain, which could have been symptoms of numerous diseases.

2. Purples

Purples described purple blotches on the skin caused by broken blood vessels, indicative of an underlying illness, such as scurvy or a circulation disorder. It could also mean the most severe stage of smallpox.

3. Livergrown

People who died of livergrown suffered from an enlarged (or failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms, like jaundice and abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by a number of disorders.

4. Chrisomes

Infant mortality was extremely high before the advent of modern medicine. The Bills distinguished abortive (miscarried), stillborn, infant, and chrisom deaths—the latter term specified infants who died within the first month of life, around the time they were baptized with special white cloths (which were called chrisomes).

5. Rising of the Lights

18th century illustration of lungs and heart
Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, The Lungs and the Heart (1754), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

Physicians and scholars have debated the origin of the term rising of the lights. According to the OED, the condition indicated any kind of illness characterized by a hoarse cough, difficulty breathing, or a choking sensation. Croup, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema were all culprits.

6. Timpany

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating in the digestive tract, which produces a hollow sound when tapped, is still called tympany today. The sort that would have proven fatal to humans could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or cancerous tumors.

7. Tissick

The term tissick, a corruption of phthisis, originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years, only to end up an obsolete word referring to a “wasting disease of the lungs,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the 17th century, that could indicate the wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, bronchitis, or possibly tuberculosis.

8. Meagrome or Megrim

We recognize this obscurely spelled ailment as migraine. During the years of the Great Plague, any internal head trauma, from an aneurysm to a brain tumor, would be filed under megrim.

9. Imposthume

Imposthume was a swelling, cyst, or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. At the same time that it was being recorded as a cause of death, imposthume took on a metaphorical meaning and referred to an egotistical or corrupt person “swollen” with pride.

10. Head Mould Shot

In newborns, the bony plates of the skull are not fused together, which makes it easier to fit through the birth canal. Head mould shot described a condition where the cranial bones were so compressed by delivery that they overlapped (or overshot) each other and caused fatal pressure on the brain. Today, the condition, now known as craniosynostosis, is treatable with surgery.

11. Quinsie

18th century illustration of a woman getting her throat examined in a pharmacy

Quinsie, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still occasionally used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis in which an abscess grows between the tonsil and the throat. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient could suffocate from the blockage.

12. Surfeit

A surfeit means an excess of something. In the Bills of Mortality, it’s hard to identify the substance in question. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities.

13. French Pox

When people across Europe came down with syphilis beginning in the 1490s, they blamed the French. (Perhaps they should have blamed Christopher Columbus and the Spanish, whom historians believe brought the bacterial infection back from the New World.) Rightly or wrongly, French pox is what the Bills of Mortality lists for deaths by advanced syphilis, whose symptoms included rash, blindness, organ failure, and tissue necrosis.

14. Bloody Flux

Dysentery, a.k.a. bloody flux, was common among densely crowded Londoners without clean drinking water. People contracted dysentery from food or water contaminated with one of several pathogens, and its main symptom was bloody diarrhea (the aforementioned flux) and severe dehydration.

15. Plannet

Plannet is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity. A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks.

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