An eccentric history of headache treatments

Neuroscience journal Brain has an amazing article on the history of non-drug treatments for headaches. What sounds like a dry article on the history of neurology is actually a remarkable romp through many of the most eccentric treatments in medicine.

The piece has just been published online and sadly is locked behind a paywall (keeps the riff-raff out) but here are a couple of interesting excerpts. The first, completely terrifying, the second, somewhat more calming.

To start, a scorching treatment for headache from Ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia:

‘Consequently, you have to shave off the hair (which yet on its own is good for the head) and cauterize [burn] superficially down to the muscles. If you wish to cauterize down to the bone, carry it out at a site where there are no muscles. For if you burn muscles, you will provoke cramps. Some physicians incise down to the bone on the forehead along the border of the hair. They abrade or chisel the bone down to the diploe and let flesh grow over the place. Others perforate the bone down to the meninges. These are hazardous treatments. You have to apply them when the headache persists after all that has been done; the patient keeps courage and the body is vigorous’

…and relax. Needless to say, there were also some slightly more gentle treatments from times gone past (assuming you’re not a mole).

Oribasius, mentioned above, advised the injection of soft oil into the ear. An interesting treatment for headache was that recommended by the 10th century astronomer and physician Ali ibn Isa (ca. 940–1010 CE), who recommended binding a dead mole to the head. If diseases of the head occur because of a faulty warm constitution, Maimonides advised bathing in comfortable warm sweet water, because it dissolved the sharp vapours that rose to the head and improved the body disposition. If headache was localized, it was most appropriate to apply massage with oil of roses

By the way, the image at the top of the post is an ‘nerve vibrator’ taken from Mortimer Granville’s 1883 book Nerve-Vibration and Excitation as Agents in the Treatment of Functional Disorder and Organic Disease.

The article is packed full of such snippets and is worth checking out if you can get hold of a copy through a library or by emailing the authors.

Link to DOI entry and summary.

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