7 Horrifying Medieval Medical Procedures – Better Life

Whether it is a necessary or optional procedure, patients should always discuss their options thoroughly with a medical professional before undergoing surgery or any other medical treatment. WebMD recommends weighing the risks and benefits as well as learning about the alternative treatments available. A reputable doctor should take all the time you need to answer all of your questions, including what their qualifications are, any side effects, and the length of the recovery period.

Now let’s go back to the Dark Ages, when a surgeon’s most recent operation was probably a shave and haircut, as barbers often performed medical procedures (including amputations!). Read on to learn about seven horrible medieval medical methods that people really used to undergo.

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In medieval times, an “empty space” in front of the lens of the eye was thought to cause blindness or blurred vision – and a procedure called “coating” was performed to clear it. Kevin Cornwell, OD, told Eyes on Eyecare that an assistant held the patient down while the “surgeon” pushed a knife, needle or blunt instrument into the center of the patient’s eye to break up that “empty space.” Follow-up care? A woolen eye patch “soaked in egg white, breast milk or clarified butter”. Ouch!

young woman rubbing her temples as if in pain
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Before the days of ibuprofen and neurologists, trepanation was a popular procedure used to remedy pain from headaches, seizures, and various mental health conditions. “This procedure — also known as ‘trephination’ or ‘trephination’ — involves drilling a hole in the skull using a sharp instrument,” explains Medical News Today. Trepanation was also seen “as a way to give passage to adulthood or to turn someone into a warrior”. Imagine doing this before a sixteenth birthday party, bar mitzvah or quinceañera today!

Close up of a woman holding her knee.
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The Amputee Coalition reports that nearly two million people in the United States live with limb loss, with the leading causes being vascular diseases such as diabetes, trauma and cancer. In medieval times, however, the amputation of limbs was commonly used to “treat” problems such as injuries or infections.

According to the Institute for Preventative Foot Health (IPFH), amputation has been used throughout the ages “as a last desperate attempt to save a life”. However, more often than not, the patient “dies of blood loss or infection, so it was surgery of last resort.” To complete the procedure, cauterization (sealing the wound by burning it) or vascular ligatures (tying off the blood vessels) were used, explains the IPFH.

Barbershop pole on a wooden background.
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History.com describes the medieval procedure known as bloodletting as the “standard treatment for various conditions, from plague and smallpox to epileptic seizures and gout.” During the treatment, veins or arteries in the forearm or neck would be cut and blood would flow. And after a church order banned monks and priests (who often acted as doctors) from performing bloodletting, barbers stepped in.

In addition to the usual services like a haircut or shave, these barbers offered procedures ranging from bloodletting to dental extractions to amputations. Fun fact: The famous modern-day striped barber’s stick “is reminiscent of the blood-stained towels that hung outside the offices of those ‘barber-surgeons,'” reports History.com.

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Leeches on a person's back.
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If the barbershop wasn’t open and a bloodletting was in order, there were always leeches. During this process, live leeches (around 20 or so) were placed on the patient to “bring out the ‘bad blood’ which medieval doctors believed caused many of their patients’ ailments,” explains Time. The LabCE reports complications, including losing more blood than expected, as well as scarring and infection. Also, perhaps, disdain: LabCE notes that “‘leechers’ were not held in as high regard professionally as other bloodthirsty people.”

Fast forward to modern times, and leeches are actually used effectively in specific medical procedures with much better results. “Today, they are primarily used in plastic surgery and other microsurgery,” Healthline notes. “That’s because leeches secrete peptides and proteins that work to prevent blood clots.”

Red wine poured into a glass.
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Modern antiseptics are invaluable in “reducing the risk of infection during surgery and other procedures”, as described by Healthline, and come in forms such as skin preparations and hand washes. But The scientist reports that in medieval times, rags or sponges soaked in wine were applied to wounds in an attempt to prevent infection.

As awful as it may seem to have wine poured over an open wound, it wasn’t as crazy – or as ineffective – as it seems. Polyphenols in red wine could kill pathogens, says Healthline, which notes that wine was also used to disinfect surgical instruments.

A boulder stacked with boulders.
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Less well known than many other saints, St. Fiacre was a 7th-century Irish monk known as “the patron saint of hemorrhoids”, according to History Daily. Suffering from hemorrhoids, Saint Fiacre thought himself cured after sitting on a certain rock in France, known as the rock of Saint-Fiacre. The news spread and soon more flocked to the rock. “There were medieval doctors who…advised their patients to sit on this famous rock for a few hours to heal themselves,” explains History Daily.

It seems like a fairly benign treatment, although the results were questionable. However, as an alternative to sitting on the rock, Healthline reports that in the Dark Ages, hemorrhoids were treated with hot cautery irons inserted into the rectum.

Thank goodness for modern medicine!

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