A horrible history of headache remedies

Nowadays, headaches and migraines can be eased with the help of medicines like paracetamol and sumatriptan. Unfortunately, before these drugs were introduced in the late nineteenth century, there had been a long saga of wacky treatments. This one isn’t the faint of heart!

Head burning

Feel like your head is on fire? Fight it with more fire! That was the opinion of celebrated ancient Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia, who had an eye-raising technique for alleviating the headaches of his patients. According to his writings, he would shave off the patient’s hair and cauterize the flesh with a hot iron, right down to the bone! Admittedly, Aretaeus would only use this method when all other treatments had been exhausted, but it’s not hard to see why it didn’t catch on.

Crocodile headband

One of the most ancient headache remedies is found in the Ebers Papyrus, an Ancient Egyptian medical text dating from around 1500 BC. Amongst the hundreds of listed treatments is a truly bizarre solution for curing migraines. The Egyptians advised that you should make a crocodile out of clay, pop grain in its mouth, and give it a pair of glass eyes. Then,  just tie it to the patient’s skull with strips of linen, and inscribe it with the names of some divinities. Job is done!

Dead mole

It may sound like the beginning of a taxidermy joke, but using a dead mole to cure your aching head was a method actually suggested by Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the 10th-century ophthalmologist known as ‘the Oculist’. Despite being the most noted physician of his generation, it’s clear that not all of his ideas were winners. His remedy had two steps. First, locate a dead mole. Second, strap it to your head. Thankfully, not all of his ideas were as daft as this one, and his work influenced our understanding of eye anatomy and anaesthesia for hundreds of years.

Electric eels

In 1762, The Dutch Society of Sciences published a set of treatises which contained a surreal report from South America. The highlight is the following paragraph, which recommended the use of electric eels to ease brain pain:

When a slave complains of a bad headache, he has them put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and they thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.

Without exception you say? Perhaps we should add electric eels as a new Cornerstone product!

The centrifuge

In the late 1770s, Erasmus Darwin was investigating the theory of vasodilation and recommended centrifugation as a treatment for headaches. For the uninitiated, centrifuges are now used to help NASA astronauts develop a tolerance for extreme G forces. Of course, in the 18th Century, these were made of wood, and wouldn’t reach the same incredible speeds, but we can’t imagine anything worse for a sore head! The idea was that it forced blood from the head to the feet, therefore alleviating the vessels in the brain and decreasing pain.

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