Medieval Medical Treatments

Medical science has come a long ways, or has it?
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health
By Rich Maloof
Many of the most disturbing medical practices in history originated in medieval times (when was that, exactly?) or earlier, before physicians and their patients knew any better. And some are still in practice today. If you think the worst thing ever to happen in the name of good health was the insurance industry, read on.
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Maggot Therapy

Should you ever find yourself in the unfortunate situation of having decaying flesh on your body, don't worry. You can always drop a handful of maggots into the wound.
The history:  Maggot therapy stretches back to biblical times, though it was in the 1500s that a French surgeon (who?) first formally recorded the therapeutic effects of fly larvae (see pictures of the creepy critters). He was astute enough to notice a large number of maggots emerging from a hole in a patient's skull, and attributed the patient's recovery to the larvae's preferred diet. He was right, too, and larval therapy remains FDA-approved today for cleansing certain types of wounds.
When you're all healed, ask your doctor if you can hold on to your maggots. Find out in which hobby/sport they can be used.
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Metal Catheter

Urinary catheterization is no walk in the park today, but in the old days it was more like a trip down a dark alley.
The history:  Urinary blockages in men were treated by inserting a metal tube (what was it made of?) into the tip of the penis and guiding the tube ever so painfully inward until it reached the bladder, at which point urine could pass through the tube and out of the body. The bronze tubes were S-shaped (see photos of them) through about the ninth century, when moderately less sadistic catheters made of gold, silver or copper had a rounded tip (thank you) and only one bend to follow the curvature of the urethra.
Popular procedure:  Catheterization was widely used to relieve blockages caused by venereal disease, which means the bent rod was passing through a urethra that was already sore and tender from infection.
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Clyster

The history:  Though having hot fluids jetted into one's bum may seem a little undignified to some, the enema of yore was long favored by aristocrats and noblemen for the treatment of various bowel conditions.
The procedure:  Long before plastic tubes and rubber bulbs softened the experience, water or other liquid preparations were injected with a clyster (not to be confused with a cloister), which looked like a giant metal syringe (see a later model) and functioned something like a bicycle pump. After a metal nozzle with holes around the tip was gingerly inserted, a plunger was depressed by a helpful friend, sending the contents of the clyster rapidly upstream toward the colon.
Royal flush:  King Louis XIV of France (what was his moniker?) is said to have withstood, or perhaps enjoyed, more than 2,000 enemas during his reign, sometimes while holding public court.
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Lobotomy

The history:  The fun thing about a lobotomy was that the neurological procedure was administered with an ice pick and a hammer. It was in not the Middle Ages but the mid-20th century that this treatment for psychiatric disorders (such as these) reached its apex.
The procedure:  The first transorbital lobotomy (what does that mean?) was performed (by whom?) in 1945 utilizing a technique practiced on a grapefruit. The objective of the procedure was to detach the frontal lobe (what does that control?) from the rest of the brain, achieved by inserting an ice pick at the top of the eye socket, tapping it with a mallet and then swishing the pick back and forth to sever the connective brain tissue. A lobotomy could be conducted as an office procedure, saving patients the nuisance of a hospital stay.
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Bloodletting

The history:  In medieval times, medical theory was based on the concept that four humours (black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood) controlled wellness. Illness signified that the humours were imbalanced — a problem handily addressed by removing large quantities of blood.
The procedure:  In the procedure known as venesection, blood was drained by opening a vein on the forearm with a tool called a fleam (see a pic of this handy folding fleam), which was about the size of a chopstick and had a small blade for penetrating the flesh, plus a channel into which the blood would flow. The fleam sent the blood into a bowl for measuring. Leeches (see pics of these icky critters) were also used for bloodletting, though it was harder to measure how much blood has been sucked by each swollen worm.
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Saw Amputation & Cauterization

The procedure:  When a limb just had to go, physicians used to go at an arm or leg with a curved knife (see pic), a bone saw (a long knife with a serrated blade) or a saw like the kind used for lopping branches from a tree.
Dulling the pain:  One account from the 17th century describes a patient's being given a small alcoholic drink then being held down by at least three assistants while the doctor went about the dismembering. The resulting wound would then be closed by burning it with a red-hot cautery (see images), an iron instrument similar to those used to brand cattle.
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Cauterized hemorrhoids

Are you sitting down? Had you been treated for hemorrhoids (what are those?) in the Middle Ages, you might have wanted to remain standing a good long time.
The procedure:  Another use of cautery irons was to reduce and seal hemorrhoids, the condition known at the time as St. Fiacre's curse, since Fiacre (he drew the short stick in saint patronage) was believed to have cured his own pain in the rear by sitting on a stone in his garden. Hippocrates (his impressive cred) suggested that the inflamed anal veins could be relieved by plucking them out with the fingernails.
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Tapeworm Diet

The history:  Why eat right and stay active when you could just swallow some parasites and let them do the work? Tapeworm pills were marketed for weight loss in the early 21st century (why can't you buy them today?), though their effectiveness — and whether they contained living tapeworm eggs — is unverified.
How it works:  Certainly a tapeworm (see pics of these parasites) infection can cause weight loss when the worms grow large enough to block intestinal passageways (what are the side effects?). So, before eating some raw pork and hoping for the best, consider 10 minutes on a treadmill.
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Mercury

It took a long time for man to understand that mercury works great in a thermometer but not so well in the bloodstream. Mercury poisoning can have serious and often deadly side effects (what can happen?).
The history:  In the third and fourth centuries, mercury (it's also called this) was used to treat trachoma (what is that?), venereal disease and other conditions, but by the ninth century people had grown wary enough to test its toxicity on animals.
The use of mercury was later relegated to topical applications, though the risks were still evident. Despite warnings from the FDA, mercury is still used in cosmetics today.
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