9 Terrifying Medical Treatments from 1900 and Their Safer Modern Versions

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The next time you have to endure a boring stay in a doctor’s waiting room, be thankful you don’t live in the early 20th century. Even as medicine was rapidly improving, these downright scary or dangerous treatments were still lingering.

1. Radium Water

Before radioactivity was fully understood, naturally occurring radium was lauded for its seemingly otherworldly benefits. Water was kept in radium-laced buckets, and people would drink the tainted liquid to cure everything from arthritis to impotence. Of course, this was an awful idea, and when people started to drop dead from this miracle water, the connection was made. Now, non-radioactive prescription drugs are used to combat arthritis and impotence.

2. Ecraseur

This obsolete tool had a chain loop that the doctor would tighten around a cyst or hemorrhoid. This constriction would rob the area of blood flow, which would cause the offending lump to fall off. In modern medical offices, creams are used to ease hemorrhoids away, while more delicate surgery is most often used to remove cysts.

3. Plombage

Plombage was a risky early 20th century treatment for tuberculosis in which a surgeon would create a cavity in a patient’s lower lung and fill it with a foreign material such as lucite balls. This procedure would make the upper, infected lung collapse. The theory maintained that a collapsed lung would eventually heal itself. Thanks to modern vaccines, TB has been largely eradicated throughout much of the developed world, although it is far from completely eliminated globally.

4. Peg Legs

Before the advent of advanced prosthetics, wooden pegs had to be jammed into the hollowed-out cavities of an amputee’s leg or strapped to the patient’s waist. The device would be shaped and carved to the correct height, and occasionally the fit was perfect. Some recipients of the procedure were able to walk for miles without noticing discomfort. Still, they were no match for modern prostheses.

5. Gasoline to Cure Lice

In the early 20th century, a patient with a bad case of head lice would douse his or her dome with gasoline or kerosene in an effort to rid their scalp of the unwanted guests. While this treatment may have been somewhat effective, it was also incredibly dangerous to anyone who walked near an open flame. Modern medicine can solve the infestation much more safely with medicated shampoo.

6. Morphine for Teething

Any parent can understand the necessity of soothing a teething baby’s pain, but even into the 20th century some moms and dads were taking incredibly risky or downright dangerous steps to help their tots. In addition to lancing (cutting the gums to give the new teeth a clear pathway to emerge), parents gave children morphine syrups to ease their crying and dusted their gums with powders that contained deadly mercury. Modern parents are luckier and can use non-toxic pain relievers or chilled teething toys.

7. Mercury for Syphilis

For most of history, a syphilis diagnosis was incredibly grim news, and at the turn of the 20th century, most doctors’ best treatment involved administering toxic mercury to the patient indefinitely, giving rise to a popular quip about lovers spending “one night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury.” Even as medical knowledge improved in the early 1900s, treatments still involved dire measures like taking arsenic or deliberately inoculating the patient with malaria, which would raise the body temperature and kill the syphilis. Thankfully, these scary treatments all went out the window with the introduction of penicillin in 1943.

8. Starvation Diets for Aneurysms

Doctors sought to treat early 20th century aneurysms by diminishing the force with which the heart pumped. One of the questionable regimens used to achieve this goal was known as Tuffnell’s diet, which consisted of bed rest and meager, dry rations. A 1901 medical text spelled out the treatment’s daily menus: Two ounces of bread and butter with two ounces of milk for breakfast, three ounces of meat and four ounces of milk or red wine for lunch, and two ounces of bread with two ounces of milk for dinner. Today many cases can be treated with minimally invasive surgeries.

9. Hydroelectric Baths for Migraines

Taking the toaster into the bathtub may be fatal today, but for several decades starting in the late 19th century, some doctors recommended treating chronic migraines by lounging in a hydroelectric bath – a warm tub with a small current passing through the water. Doctors eventually became skeptical of this method, and today’s migraine sufferers can turn to more effective pharmaceutical treatments.

10 Facts You Should Know About Epilepsy

Madrolly/iStock via Getty Images
Madrolly/iStock via Getty Images

While the signs of some chronic illnesses are vague or invisible, epilepsy symptoms can be hard to miss. The neurological disorder is characterized by recurrent epileptic seizures, or periods of excessive or overlapping activities in the brain. It also comes with a stigma: Patients who exhibit epileptic seizures have been accused of being violent, mad, and even possessed. Those misconceptions are sometimes more harmful than the epilepsy symptoms themselves. With proper treatment, people with the condition often lead safe, happy lives. Here are some more facts.

1. Epilepsy has fueled superstitions for centuries.

Before modern medicine, cultures around the world mistook epileptic seizures for spiritual possession. There’s even a passage in the New Testament of the Bible where Jesus performs an exorcism on a boy having an apparent epileptic fit. The ancient Greeks [PDF] believed seizures were a punishment sent from the gods, and therefore considered them sacred. We now know that seizures originate in the brain, but the superstitions that surround them persist.

2. Epileptic seizures are caused by a neurological imbalance.

The brain is controlled by neurons: cells that carry electrical impulses that allow us to process our environment. Some neurons stimulate other brain cells, while others tell them to calm down. This balance is what allows us to function normally. In people with epilepsy, too many stimulating or calming neurons fire at the same time, causing epileptic seizures.

3. There are different types of epileptic seizures.

When most picture someone having a seizure “seizing up,” losing consciousness, and convulsing uncontrollably. These are the characteristics of grand mal or tonic-clonic seizures, but it’s not the only form they take.

Generalized seizures are caused by activity in both hemispheres of the brain, and they include tonic-clonic seizures, as well as absence seizures (brief loss of consciousness), myoclonic seizures (random muscle jerks), and more. Focal seizures occur in only one region of the brain and can be simple—limited to twitching and odd feelings, tastes, or smells—or complex, where sufferers experience a temporary loss of awareness.

4. Not all seizures are signs of epilepsy.

Spontaneous, non-epileptic seizures happen for a number of reasons, ranging in seriousness from brain tumor or stroke to low blood sodium or lack of sleep. A patient is usually diagnosed as epileptic after they’ve experienced two or more seizures, or if they have a positive result on a diagnostic neurological test. The most common test, an electroencephalogram (EEG), monitors electrical activity in the brain.

5. Epilepsy causes vary from person to person.

A person can develop epilepsy for a variety of reasons. In some cases, mutations in the genes related to regulating neurons can make some people more vulnerable to the environmental factors that cause the disorder. Other causes include brain damage, infectious diseases like AIDS, and developmental disorders like autism. But in roughly half of all cases, the condition is cryptogenic, which means doctors can’t pinpoint a specific cause.

6. Outside stimuli can trigger epileptic seizures.

Things that affect brain function, like drinking alcohol, taking drugs, and not getting enough sleep, can make someone more vulnerable to having epileptic fit. Other triggers are much harder to avoid: People with reflex epilepsy get seizures as a reaction to stimuli, such as flashing lights or even music.

7. Auras can signal an impending seizure.

Warning signs known as auras can take the form of a strange smell or taste, a sudden wave of fear or joy, a feeling of déjà vu, or random muscle twitches. Auras are technically focal seizures, which are seizures the sufferer is aware of, and though they often precede bigger seizures that trigger a loss of consciousness, they can also happen on their own.

8. Temporary paralysis sometimes follows an epileptic seizure.

After their seizure has stopped, patients may experience full or partial paralysis, usually on one side of their body. The loss of motor function can last anywhere from 30 minutes to 36 hours, but most of the time it doesn’t exceed 15 hours. This phenomenon is named Todd’s paralysis after Victorian physician Robert Bentley Todd, who first described it.

9. Few epileptic seizures are fatal.

The biggest threat during an epileptic fit is injury from falling down and convulsing in an unconscious state, but the majority of seizures don’t cause serious harm on their own. The exception is tonic-clonic status epilepticus, which is the name for a seizure that lasts five minutes or longer. These are considered emergency seizures and can result in brain damage or death [PDF].

10. Epilepsy can be treated with vagus nerve stimulation.

Epilepsy is highly treatable with a number of methods, from drugs to brain implants. Many patients take anti-seizure medications that balance neural signals and prevent seizures from happening. Surgery to remove the area of the brain where seizures typically begin is another form of treatment. Other options include a high-fat, low-carb diet, which can stabilize neuron function, and vagus nerve stimulation, which uses implants to send electric pulses up the vagus nerve in the neck to regulate brain activity.

CVS Pulls Zantac and Similar Heartburn Medications From Stores Over Cancer Concerns

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On September 28, CVS Pharmacy announced that it’s pulling some heartburn medications from its shelves until further notice, following an alert from the Food and Drug Administration that they may contain a cancer-causing ingredient.

CNN reports that the medication in question is ranitidine, and CVS will stop selling its store brand version and the more commonly known brand-name version Zantac. Though tests are still ongoing, the FDA has found that ranitidine contains N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), which is a “probable human carcinogen,” according to a statement from CVS.

CVS’s voluntary suspension of sales is a “better safe than sorry” course of action—the FDA hasn’t issued a formal recall of Zantac/ranitidine or even suggested that users stop taking the medication. In its statement, CVS says that “the levels [of NDMA] that FDA is finding in ranitidine from preliminary tests barely exceed amounts found in common foods.” According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, NDMA is also found in tobacco, cured meats, beer, fish, cheese, and even the air we breathe [PDF].

Ranitidine is a type of H2 receptor blocker, which decreases heartburn and acid reflux symptoms by preventing stomach cells from releasing excess acid. It isn't the only H2 receptor blocker on the market, so this might be a good time to consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist about switching to a different one, like Pepcid (famotidine) or Tagamet (cimetidine).

The FDA said in a statement that it will continue investigating the potential risk of taking ranitidine and share its findings when available.

[h/t CNN]

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