10 Ancient Medical Practices That Did More Harm Than Good

10 Amazing Ancient Medical Practices That Did More Harm Than Good

It is very tempting, when faced with the hustle and bustle and the fast pace of modern life, to hanker after the rural idyll of years gone by.

Surely, it is tempting to think, life was simpler when we lived like Pa and Ma Ingalls and were self-sufficient on our own homesteads.  That dream may be comforting but it is a false comfort.  Life in the past was, quite simply, awful.  People had to eat the food they grew or could trade for but it was almost all seasonal.  If a harvest was bad it was difficult to get grains from elsewhere to feed the family.  Food was bland because spices and seasonings were expensive.  Entertainment was limited to reading books and listening to someone play an instrument.  All that is, however, manageable, to a certain extent.  What made life in years gone by truly miserable was the standard of medical care.  Antibiotics and vaccinations were developed comparatively recently so common childhood diseases could and did kill.  Anesthetics are also a relatively recent invention so if you needed to have an operation your senses would be dulled with nothing more than alcohol and you would feel every cut.  Infection control was not practiced so many people died from wounds that got dirty.

If this is still not enough to put you off a dream of former paradises just think about how limited medical knowledge really was.  Doctors had a range of possible treatments that they could try out on you but generally they would make you worse not better.  Many of them were, in fact, more like a form of torture than medical treatment.  Here are 10 of the worst treatments of all time.

10. Teething Troubles

Ancient medicine for teething had disastrous results
Ancient medicine for teething had disastrous results

Human babies are born without teeth (a great relief to nursing mothers) but this means that they suffer a lot of pain when cutting their first teeth (age 6 months-3 years).  In century’s past many parents and doctors noticed the correlation between the pain of teething and the dangerous period of life when children were susceptible to many infant diseases.  People put two and two together and made five and held the teething process responsible for the susceptibility to disease.

From about 1500 doctors tried to ‘help’ the teeth come through by cutting back the gums around the teeth.  This operation must have been incredibly painful for the poor child as it was done without recourse to anesthetic.  Given the lack of antiseptics and the fact that doctors did not routinely sterilize instruments many children must have got very nasty infections as a result and many of those died.  This barbaric practice was common until about as late as 1920.

For parents who did not want to resort to cutting open their children’s gums the alternative remedy was a powder or a soothing syrup.  Many of these teething remedies contained drugs like morphine and some of the powders even contained mercury.  It was not uncommon for mothers, desperate to sooth their children to resort to these syrups.  The children slept peacefully and many never woke up.

9. Mercury Cures

Mercury treatments were deadly
Mercury treatments were deadly

While sex before marriage was frowned on in the past this restriction usually applied only to women who wanted to be seen to be of good character.  Everyone else enjoyed their night time frolics just as much as we do today.

Sadly, just as today, there were a variety of venereal diseases that the unlucky could pick up.  AIDS, the scourge of the 20th century was not yet an issue but syphilis was just as terrifying to our ancestors.  Like AIDS there was no cure and sufferers could expect to get ulcers before developing progressive blindness and dementia.  The only treatment that doctors could offer to the unlucky patient was a lifetime of mercury pills, mercury rubs and even mercury steam baths.

Mercury is incredibly poisonous and can cause death through mercury poisoning.  Those who did not die could look forward to going mad, losing their teeth and getting ulcers, not that different from the effects of the disease itself.  The medical use of mercury was not limited to the treatment of syphilis, however.  This deadly element was also used to treat teething pain in children (see above) and as a key ingredient in cheap fillings until comparatively recently (in some parts of the world amalgam fillings are still popular).

The Chinese used Mercury in the past to allow them to walk on water and as a compound in a fertility drink popular with older men and as a contraceptive in women (see below).

8. Suppositories as Birth Control

Suppositories as birth control. Yikes
Suppositories as birth control. Yikes

Until the advent of the contraceptive pill women have always been at risk of an unwanted pregnancy.  Ancient societies came up with a number of different contraceptive methods to try to help women avoid falling pregnant.

Some methods, such as the roman practice of wearing a cat’s liver on their left foot were harmless (if repugnant) but some were rather more dangerous.  The women of ancient Egypt used to make suppositories of crocodile dung and honey.  The idea is not only repugnant but the dung must have been dangerous to collect and introduce the possibility of infection if the woman’s vagina was at all torn or if she did not manage to clean out every last piece of gunk.

The ancient Greeks did not stop at suppositories.  They went even further when Hippocrates suggested the use of an IUD.  Whether or not any woman was brave enough to submit to having something (unsterilized) forced into her uterus we do not know but it could have made the poor woman very sick indeed and likely rendered her infertile.  Women did try using oral contraceptives but these were usually simply poisonous (such as mercury) rather than effective.

The onus was not, however, always on the woman.  Some men were brave enough to have a hole cut at the base of their penis (again without anesthetic or antiseptic) to drain the semen away.  This hole would also dribble when urinating so the men had to cover it with their finger when they needed the toilet and when they actually wanted to father children.

7. Problematic Pregnancies

Pregancy complication had no real ancient treatment
Pregancy complication had no real ancient treatment

As the birth control methods that were available to women of the past were so unreliable, the pregnancy rate was higher than today.  Women, who ate less meat then men in any event, became progressively more worn down and anemic with each pregnancy and many of the births were very difficult.  The medical practices relating to childbirth did not change much between the time of the ancient Greeks and the advent of the use of anesthetics in the time of Queen Victoria.

There was very little that could be done to aid a woman in childbirth.  Medieval women said prayers and used magical stones (rubbing them on the thighs then calling on the child to come out) and many women who could afford it would arrange for a holy girdle to be available to them to tie around their bellies during delivery (not, perhaps so different from the aromatherapy and massage some women choose to try today).  When things went wrong, however, these remedies proved less than useful.

Midwives were aware of the complications caused by a breech delivery but, as cesarean sections were only used when the mother was dying,  the babies had to be turned in the womb.  Midwives did this by inserting their hands lubricated with a mixture of flaxseed and chickpeas.  The pain felt by the poor women who had to endure this procedure must have been intense.  An alternative method was to shake the birthing bed or toss the woman in a blanket and sometimes the baby was pulled foot first from the womb.  If the baby died during childbirth it was dismembered in the womb and the parts removed a horrifying procedure for the poor woman.   Retained placentas were removed with the application of counterweights.

Many women sustained injuries during childbirth which, today, would be cleaned and stitched.  In ancient times, however, there was little that could be done to prevent hemorrhage except packing with bandages.  As these were rarely sterile it could lead to infection, childbed fever killed many women, the risk of death for each pregnancy was between 1-3%.

6. Trepanation

Trepanation was barbaric
Trepanation was barbaric

Neurosurgery is amongst one of the most complex of all modern day surgical disciplines.  In the past, however, ordinary doctors and healers did not shy away from performing a craniotomy on people who were awake, conscious and un-anesthetized.

The procedure was called trepanation and was performed as long as 7000 years ago.  At the time the holes were made by scraping away the bones with flint stones.  Doctors developed a range of different techniques to make the holes.  Incas were particularly keen on trepanation and performed the operation by holding the patient’s head between their knees and making square holes using a special knife.  The operation was so popular that people had it more than once.  The Arabs preferred to make circular holes using a sharp point to punch perforations in a circle and then remove the piece of bone in the middle.

The reasons for performing a trepanation were diverse.  Some doctors, such as Hippocrates, advocated it for the treatment of cranial fractures.  It is believed that the procedure may also have been used to treat mental illnesses or even to aid the patient in communing with the gods.

The procedure is still performed today and had some success in ancient times.  The manner in which it was performed, however, and particularly the use of dirty and crude tools meant that it was not as survivable as it should have been.

5. Medicinal Bleeding

Blood letting was supposedly a cure
Blood letting was supposedly a cure

Doctors from ancient times through to even as recently as about 100 year ago were convinced that blood was responsible for a lot of the illnesses suffered by their patients.  Humans were, the ancients believed, governed by their four humors, blood, phlegm and black and yellow bile.  An illness was the result of an imbalance of one of the humors and, as blood was considered to be the dominant one, getting rid of some blood was thought to promote a cure.

There were a number of painful ways that the doctor could bleed his patient.  Leeches are the best known (and are still applied today but only in very specific situations).  IF a doctor did not want to use a leech he could scarify the skin (cut it with a small box filled with small blades) or use a fleam or lancet to get access directly into a vein.

Blood is necessary to health, we know today that excessive blood loss can make the victim weak and send them into shock.  Bleeding a sick person is only likely to make them even weaker and less likely to be able to fight off the disease.  Nevertheless doctors loved to bleed patients and many patients asked to be bled (not dissimilar, if you think about it, to people asking for antibiotics today even when they will not cure the illness).  Poor Charles II of England was a striking example of how bloodletting could do more harm than good.  The poor man was tortured by his doctors following a seizure. Not satisfied with feeding him a range of emetics and enemas they applied mustard plasters to his body and remove 24 ounces of blood.  Needless to say the poor man did not survive.

4. Kidney and Bladder Stone Surgery

Bend over please
Bend over please

Kidney stones are so painful that many mothers who have had them have said that they have caused more pain than childbirth.  These days there are a range of different treatments available to the sufferer.  In ancient times, however, doctors had to treat the patient without recourse to these humane modern methods.

In order to remove the stones the patient had to be sat down on the lap of a friend with his legs around his head so his pubic region was bared to the doctor.  The doctor would then insert his fingers of one hand into the anus and use the other to press down on his stomach.  This would enable the doctor to feel whether or not stones were present.  If they were the doctor could try to insert a tube into the bladder to allow the stone to pass.  If the stone was too large, however, it had to be cut out with a knife.  If the shock of the operation did not kill the sufferer an infection from the filthy instruments or dirty operating room probably would not to mention the indignity of having a doctor fiddle around in your rectum while you sit on your friends knee.

3. Hemorrhoids

The treatment worse than the disease
The treatment worse than the disease

Hemorrhoids are a particularly painful affliction.  Also known as piles are blood vessels in the rectum that become swollen.  They can cause burning pain and sometimes bleed.  These days there are a number of, if not totally painless, then completely effective treatments for the problem.  In years gone past, however, people had to resort to extreme measures to get rid of this painful affliction.  Enemas (see below) were popular with the ancient Egyptian doctors but this was probably the most benign form of treatment.

While Edward II of England was famously killed by his executioner inserting a red hot poker in his anus, centuries earlier Hippocrates suggested a more begin use for a red hot iron in that region – the cauterization of hemorrhoids.  Other well-known cures involved the application of leeches to the anal area or simply pulling them out with the fingers.

Given that hemorrhoids are unpleasant but not life threatening many people chose to leave theirs untreated rather than risk such unpleasant procedures.

2. Counter –Irritation

Ancient medicine practiced by angry, angry ants
Ancient medicine practiced by angry, angry ants

Counter-Irritation was a crazy theory espoused by cruel doctors who were convinced that they could heal one part of the body by causing injury to another.

The poor sufferer would have their body mutilated by various means, all in the name of effecting a cure.  The methods used were varied but all equally barbaric, an arm or limb might be shoved into an anthill until it was covered with enough bites to satisfy the doctor.  Alternatively the physician might apply hot irons to the person’s skin or dribble acid over it.  Another favored method was to make a cut in the body and pour in some dried peas and beans.  The wound had to be jept open as long as the doctor felt the treatment was needed.  Some patients were lucky enough to be treated by doctors who advocated several small wounds rather than one large one.

Whatever the method used by the doctor in the case the poor patient was exposed to dirty implements, open wounds in an unsterile environment and an awful lot of unnecessary physical pain and suffering.

1. Enemas

Enemas.  An Egyption panacea
Enemas. An Egyption panacea

The ancients were obsessed with Enemas.  This treatment which many today would do everything they could to avoid (although there is a niche market for its modern descendant, colonic irrigation), was incredibly popular.   The Egyptians used them to treat piles and also to give nutrients to people who were not able to eat.  Anyone suffering from malnourishment was held down and given an enema of barley, milk and butter.

This use continued over the centuries, used to treat constipation and worms as well as to administer medicine.  A variety of different apparatus were used ranging from cow horns and calabashes (popular in Africa) to a tube attached to a bag that looked somewhat like bagpipe.  Eventually syringes were developed to make the administration easier.  Some were even designed for self-administration and became popular with the middle classes who wanted to obtain the benefits of the procedure but could not afford a doctor to help every time.  The administration of enemas was seen as so routine that Louis XIV of France ‘enjoyed’ over 2,000 of them and regularly held court or received visitors while undergoing the procedure.

Enemas can perform a useful medical function but have to be administered correctly.  Today the tubing used is discarded after each patient. The apparatus used in the past was not necessarily unique to each individual (although many owned their own) leading to the possibility of infection.  Overreliance on enemas to aid relief for constipation can lead to the patient becoming completely dependent on the use of enemas.  Overzealous use or unregulated or over forceful introduction of the solution into the rectum can also cause damage to that very sensitive area.


Next time you are tempted to complain about your doctor and the treatments they give you just think about how lucky you are to have recourse to the very best of modern medicine backed by years of research.  Living in the 21st century you will not have to have a hole drilled into your head in an attempt to cure epilepsy or depression.  Contraceptives are freely available and do not involve cutting into the penis or inserting crocodile dung where it really has no business going (unless, of course, that floats your particular boat).  This means that you can have the number of children you want to have and that they are likely to be delivered healthy and safe and if there is a difficulty in the delivery you will not be tossed in a blanket or have your bed picked up and shaken.

Once your child is safely born you can give them analgesics to help with teething, safe in the knowledge that you are not drugging them to death and knowing that the doctor will not torture your little one by cutting open their gums.  You will not be forced to have an enema or loose blood for no reason, have a doctor make extra and debilitating painful wounds over the surface of your body.  Your kidney stones will removed without the need for a doctor to feel around in your anus and slice your bladder open and your hemorrhoids will not be removed through the application of a searing hot iron rod.

More than anything else think about how lucky you are to be able to have operations performed while you are unconscious or feeling no pain and that they are done in a clean and sterile environment where the risk of infection is kept to a minimum.