By taking a stroll through time, and looking back on all the weird medical procedures throughout history, it makes it a little bit easier to appreciate our current grasp on health and medicine. For example, just over a century ago, people were still attaching leeches to their skin, leaking blood from their bodies, and "curing" each other with doctor-assisted orgasms. (Yes, that actually happened.)
So let's all take a moment to be grateful for our modern times, shall we? "Medical treatments have advanced significantly in the past 100 years, particularly in surgery. If you get a traumatic injury or have another need of surgery, there has never been a better time," Jaya Jaya Myra, lifestyle expert and author of Vibrational Healing: Attain Balance And Wholeness, Understand Your Energetic Type, tells Bustle. "Many surgeries can now be done outpatient and in under two hours." Not to mention, it's so easy to waltz into a doctor's office and pick up a near-magical cough medicine, or plop down in a therapist's office for an hour's worth of (also near-magical) talk therapy.
We still have a long way to go when it comes to treating certain conditions and diseases, but it's still pretty amazing to think about how far we've come in such a short time, especially when looking back on where we've been. Here are a few bizarre, shocking, and downright creepy medical procedures from back in the day, that, thank goodness, are no longer a thing.
1. Early Forms Of Shock Therapy
Back in the 1930s, patients with psychiatric disorders often underwent a procedure called electroconvulsive therapy, or ECT. "The idea was to induce seizures using electricity, which had been shown to reduce the signs of mental illness," Joshua Klapow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the host of The Web Radio Show tells Bustle. "Before ECT, drugs were used to induce the seizures and often patients would experience extreme terror prior to the seizure." And while that's awful all on its own, there were even more downsides to these early forms of ECT.
"The induction of seizures produced intense muscle contractions that could injure individuals, and while there was some retrograde amnesia, patients had such aversive experiences that in some hospitals ECT was used both as a treatment and a threat for difficult patients," Klapow says. (Yikes.)
When it was used for a treatment, doctors did their best to make patients comfortable. "Muscle relaxants were introduced and more mild forms of electricity were utilized," he says. "The result was a less intense but still effective treatment for psychiatric disorders like severe depression."
Today, about 100,000 people still undergo the procedure each year — though the modern method is a far cry from the seizure-inducing horror story it was 90 years ago.
"We've gone from using pills to induce a seizure and terrorizing patients with psychiatric disorders to creating much more localized brain stimulation that appears to be effective in treating severe cases of problems like depression," Klapow says. And that sounds so much better, don't you think?
2. Mercury All Around
Back before we were aware of the toxic dangers of mercury, people used it for pretty much everything. "From treating STIs to relieving constipation, mercury used to be a go-to for many common ailments," Myra says. "Mercury was believed to have alchemical properties that could transmute most things."
But doctors weren't alchemists, and mercery wasn't helpful — or safe. "Using mercury on patients led to a lot of health problems and deaths," she says. "Mercury is now known to cause chest pains, tremors, hallucinations, muscle spasms, psychotic reactions, and death." So, yeah, don't touch the stuff.
3. Meth In Medicines
Back in the 1800s, many parents thought nothing of soothing their childred with a little alcohol, cannabis, morphine, or even methamphetamine — all of which were ingredients commonly found in syrups and elixirs dished out by pharmacists.
In small doses, a little alcohol or morphine might not have been too big of a deal, but parents often went overboard. "While they were marketed to stop pain in little ones, parents commonly used them to knock out their fussy kids to get them to sleep," Chris Brantner, the certified sleep science coach from SleepZoo, tells Bustle. "The syrups were taken off the market in the early 1900s after it was found that kids were overdosing on them." (Cue my horrified face.)
If you're wondering what bloodletting is, it's all in the name. "Medical practitioners would cut their patients, allowing them to bleed," Myra says. "It was one of the most longstanding medical traditions that we no longer use." The practice reaches back 3,000 years.
"This was another medical treatment considered a cure-all for a wide variety of health problems, for anything from the common cold, to headaches, to aches and pains in the body," she says. "It was believed that bleeding would help to bring balance back to the body, balancing the four humors (phlegm, black bile, yellow bile, and blood). Since none of the other humors flowed through the body, blood was the only thing they could target to restore balance."
To "balance" the body and improve health issues, doctors would literally cut patients open and release a certain, prescribed amount of blood. "Practitioners typically nicked veins or arteries in the forearm or neck, sometimes using a special tool featuring a fixed blade and known as a fleam," noted author Jennie Cohen on History.
Even back in the day, people thought it was pretty gross, and many practitioners were outlawed from doing it. But then barbers (who had plenty of blades handy) stepped in. "Partly in response to this injunction, barbers began offering a range of services that included bloodletting, cupping, tooth extractions, lancing, and even amputations," Cohen says. It wasn't until the late 1800s that bloodletting really went out of style, once it was replaced with more modern procedures.
Another way to induce bloodletting was through the use of leeches, which really upped the whole "creepy" factor. "The application of leeches came into practice about 2,500 years ago," psychic and spiritual counselor Davida Rappaport tells Bustle. Physicians would attach the worm to wounds — or to someone who needed to have their humors balanced — and let it do its thing.
"The use of them declined, but since the 1980s, physicians have found them very helpful used to initiate blood flow to areas of damaged veins after an appendage was being attached or grafted," Rappaport And yes, that means they are still in use today.
According to Healthline, "Medicinal leeches have three jaws with tiny rows of teeth. They pierce a person’s skin with their teeth and insert anticoagulants through their saliva. The leeches are then allowed to extract blood, for 20 to 45 minutes at a time, from the person undergoing treatment. This equates to a relatively small amount of blood, up to 15 milliliters per leech."
Currently, leeches are sometimes used to reduce swelling following plastic surgery or other microsurgery. "This is because leeches secrete peptides and proteins that work to prevent blood clots," Healthline noted. "These secretions are also known as anticoagulants. This keeps blood flowing to wounds to help them heal." And all of that sounds great. But I'm still not sure I'm on board with it.
6. Insulin Shock Therapy
In the early and mid-1900s, doctors were using insulin shock therapy to treat mental illness. "Insulin shock therapy was used in the 1940s and 1950s and went out of favor in the 1960s with the development and usage of tranquilizers," Rappaport says. "Physicians would inject large doses of insulin into patients suffering from schizophrenia in order to induce comas and convulsions." This would, essentially, shut their body down so they could no longer react.
"Patients would experience all of the symptoms diabetics experience from too much insulin being released into their bloodstream," she says. "A treatment would be terminated by injecting glucose. Unfortunately, the treatments were not regulated and each physician or hospital had their own guidelines for treatment. Patients who underwent treatment often suffered permanent brain damage as a result of treatment."
7. Orgasms To Cure "Female Hysteria"
In case you didn't notice, mental illness wasn't particularly well understood back in the day, but especially as it related to female patients. As a result, mentally ill women were forced to undergo all sorts of horrifying and ridiculous procedures, such as orgasm therapy.
Orgasms were often used to cure "female hysteria." As Myra says, "Back in Victorian times, when a woman had mood swings (or any other problems that affected her mood), she was said to have female hysteria, and as such, be hysterical. She'd go to the doctor, who would give her a 'vaginal massage' until she orgasmed (but they didn't call it orgasm; they called it reaching 'hysterical paroxysm')."
While that may creep you out, it did lead to one major bonus, in the form of an invention many people still use today. "Doctors would ... complain about how many women were coming to see them in hopes of getting their magical cure," Myra says. "And hence, vibrators were created."
In terms of horrific medical procedures, lobotomies really take the cake. According to Tayna Lewis in Live Science, this "medical procedure" involved "cutting a hole in the skull and injecting ethanol into the brain to destroy the fibers that connected the frontal lobe to other parts of the brain." Later, physicians moved onto the ice pick method, where they would insert a metal pick through the eye socket and "move the instrument side-to-side to separate the frontal lobes from the thalamus, the part of the brain that receives and relays sensory input," Lewis says.
It was a seriously disgusting and inhumane procedure, and one that was in use through the 1950s.
"Frontal lobotomies were performed in the 1940s and through the early 1950s. The surgery was administered in cases of mental illness — mostly performed on women," Rappaport says. "The procedure was supposed to reduce symptoms in mentally ill individuals by calming them down and taking away their anger and violent rebellious tendencies."
It was often used against women, to make them less spirited. "The procedure would alter their personalities and damage their intellect — sometimes to the point of severe brain damage," Rappaport says. "They often became incontinent and were unable to function normally in society, if the surgery did not kill them." Luckily, this is all sorts of illegal today.
9. Rotation Therapy
While not as painful or creepy as the rest, treatments like "rotation therapy" just go to show how far we've come in terms of our understanding of the human body. What is rotation therapy, you ask? To put it simply, it consisted of putting a patient in a chair, or a swing, and spinning them around at a predetermined speed and number of revolutions decided by the doctor. "Charles Darwin's grandfather Erasmus Darwin used rotation therapy to induce sleep," Brantner says. "He thought that sleep cured disease, and spinning quickly in circles could make you sleepy."
For many reasons, this method didn't exactly catch on. "Apparently, [Darwin] wasn't a highly regarded physician, so the technique went ignored," Brantner says. "However, later, an American doctor, Benjamin Rush, began using the technique to 'cure' mental illness by reducing brain congestion." Though whether this "cure" actually worked remains to be seen, many patients did experience vomiting, an emptying of the bowels or bladder, and naturally, fear.
Let's all take a second to have a collective eye roll, followed by a minute to appreciate how far we've come in terms of science, medicine, and our understanding of the human body. While we still have a long way to go — and hey, in 100 years we'll probably be laughing at some of our current "modern" treatments — it's nice to know none of us will have to encounter a leech, if we don't want to.