Today, the term “progress” holds a place of honor among society, conjuring thoughts of innovation and enlightenment. Nowhere is progress more impactful to humanity than in the field of medicine. Medical science and its advancements have propelled humans so far ahead that its rudimentary foundations are easily dismissed as fodder from bygone eras.
The truth, however, paints a different picture. Some of the seemingly barbarous medical practices from centuries past retain their validity, informing our approaches to modern healthcare in surprising — and sometimes skin-crawling — ways. Despite their gruesome nature, certain ancient medical practices have earned their place in the annals of modern medicine.
Before the days of penicillin, anesthesia, and “germaphobia,” the medical profession employed an arsenal of leeches, maggots, screws, saws, nasal hooks, and other frightening tools to heal afflicted patients. Which of these ancient medical practices are still in use today, and how have they evolved? The answers are only for the brave!
1. Leech Therapy
Also known as “bloodletting,” this ancient medical practice dates to 800 B.C. and was popularized by the ancient Greeks. The Greeks believed that an imbalance of the blood humors caused many common diseases and that removing some measure of blood would restore balance and cure illnesses.
Leech therapy, a prevalent method for bloodletting, utilized leeches as a means for controlling the elimination of blood from the human body. It has existed for thousands of years but regained popularity during the Renaissance as classical culture and ideas reemerged.
Modern Application: Hirudotherapy
While bloodletting is rarely used in today’s medical practices, leech therapy is still a surprisingly valid method of treatment in microsurgery for procedures such as skin grafts and reconstructive surgery. Sometimes surgical procedures that involve a high risk of soft tissue loss due to deadening will require leech therapy to maintain and help reconnect healthy tissues.
Medical leeching restores circulation and prevents tissue death. Leech saliva acts as an anticoagulant, allowing blood to flow through the severed tissue to the new connective tissues introduced during the procedure. Blood clotting near the wound or incision results in dead flesh that cannot attach to the supplied living tissue. When doctors must remove too much dead tissue, the surgery becomes more difficult or even impossible. Leeching keeps tissues healthy during long and difficult surgeries where tissue deadening is a concern.