7 Terrifying Historical Remedies for Migraine Headaches

George Marks/Getty Images
George Marks/Getty Images

Migraines are more than just splitting headaches. Migraine symptoms, which affect about one in seven people worldwide, can include throbbing pain on one side of the head, nausea, sensitivity to light and sound, and visual disturbances called auras. Today, several classes of drugs are prescribed to either prevent migraine headaches from happening or halt them once they’ve started. But in previous centuries, migraine treatments weren’t so convenient—or effective.

1. Bloodletting

Whether by scalpel or by leeches, bloodletting was the most common remedy for migraine headaches (and many other ailments) before the advent of modern medicine. Throughout most of history, Western physicians subscribed to the humoral theory, in which human health was governed by four fluids (humors) that must be kept in balance. Sickness was explained as an imbalance of humors, and bloodletting was thought to rebalance the system. The methods varied, though. In the case of migraine headaches, the Greek physician Aretaeus suggested sticking a barbed goose feather up the unfortunate patient’s nose and prodding around until blood flowed.

Even as late as the 18th century, bloodletting was still believed to help migraines. Swiss physician Samuel Auguste Tissot, who was the first to describe migraines as a discrete medical condition in the 1770s, recommended bleeding, better hygiene and diet, and drugs including infusions of orange leaves and valerian.

2. Garlic

The 11th-century physician Abu al-Qasim suggested sticking a clove of garlic into the migraine headache sufferer’s temple. He offered a handy recipe:

“Take a garlic; peel and cut at both extremities. Make an incision with a large scalpel in the temple and keep under the skin a cavity wide enough to introduce the garlic and to conceal it completely. Apply compresses and tighten, let it remain about 15 hours, then remove the device. Extract the garlic, leave the wound for two or three days, then apply cotton soaked in butter until it suppurates.”

Once the wound started oozing—which was considered a good sign—the physician would cauterize the incision with a hot iron. Cauterization was meant to prevent infection, although modern research has shown that it actually lowers the threshold for bacterial infections.

3. Cupping

Cupping—inverting hot glass vessels on the patients’ body—was thought to perform the same function as bloodletting. Prominent Dutch physician Nicolaes Tulp, depicted in Rembrandt’s 1632 painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, treated a migraine sufferer by cupping. She soon recovered.

A substance called cantharidin, a potent blistering agent secreted by the Meloidae family of beetles, was also applied as part of the cupping and blistering process to draw out bad humors. Unfortunately, if the cantharidin was left on too long, it could be absorbed into the body and cause painful urination, gastrointestinal and renal dysfunction, and organ failure. (Perhaps unrelatedly, cantharidin was also used as an aphrodisiac.)

4. Trepanation

One of the oldest types of surgery, trepanation is the practice of cutting away part of the cranium and exposing brain tissue to treat injuries or chronic conditions like migraine headaches. The 16th-century Dutch physician Petrus Forestus, who meticulously recorded the ailments and treatments of his patients, performed trepanation on a person with incurable migraines. In the brain tissue he found something he called a “black worm.” According to a 2010 study by neurologist Peter J. Koehler, the mass may have been a chronic subdural hematoma—a collection of blood between the surface of the brain and its outermost covering—and a possible cause of the patient’s agony.

5. Dead Moles

Ali ibn Isa al-Kahhal, the leading ophthalmologist of the medieval Muslim world, described more than 130 eye diseases and treatments in his groundbreaking monograph Tadhkirat al-kaḥḥālīn (The Notebook of the Oculists). While his descriptions of ocular anatomy were sound, he also touched on remedies for headaches, and here his prescriptions seem more suspect. To treat migraines, he suggested tying a dead mole to one’s head.

6. Electric Fish

Long before scientists fully understood the principles of electricity, ancient doctors recommended it as a remedy for migraines. Scribonius Largus, the court physician for the Roman emperor Claudius, saw that the torpedo fish—also known as the electric ray, native to the Mediterranean Sea among other areas—had the power to shock anyone who touched it. Largus and other doctors prescribed the shocks as cures for headache, gout, and prolapsed anus.

In the mid-18th century, a Dutch journal reported that the electric eel, found in South America, emitted even stronger shocks than the Mediterranean fish and were used for head pain. One observer wrote that headache sufferers “put one of their hands on their head and the other on the fish, and thereby will be helped immediately, without exception.”

7. Mud Foot-Baths

Compared to expired rodents, warm foot-baths must have sounded positively decadent to those afflicted with extreme pain. Nineteenth-century physicians suggested that migraine sufferers take the waters at Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně) and Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), two spa towns in what is now the Czech Republic. While the mineral waters were useful for alleviating congestive headaches, mud foot-baths were believed to draw blood toward the feet and away from the head, calming the nervous system. “The foot-bath ought not to be taken too hot, and the feet should be rubbed one over the other while washing the mud off, and afterwards with a coarse towel. A brisk walk may be used to keep up the circulation,” suggested Prussian Army physician Apollinaris Victor Jagielski, M.D. in 1873.

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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