Ancient Headache Remedies

Treatments for headaches thru out history included prayers and sacrifices to the spirits to make them happy, or applying an extremely unpleasant material such as goat dung to chase the spirits away. These treatments may have been successful in helping the pain as a result of the placebo effect, since the patients believed that the spirits were causing the pain.

A Papyrus that was discovered, The Ebers Papyrus, dating back to about 1200 BC, mentions migraine type symptoms, neuralgia and head pain. According to the papyrus, the Egyptians healers would take a clay crocodile with grain in its mouth and use a linen strip to bind it to the patient’s head. The names of various gods who were believed to be able to cure their problems would be written on the strip. This process may have helped patients by compressing the scalp which put pressure on the dilated blood vessels that were causing the pain.

Hippocrates is believed to have been the first person to recognize and describe the so-called “aura” that many migraine sufferers experience. He wrote that patients would see a bright light, usually in the right eye, which was followed by extreme pain in the temples and eventually the entire head. In the fifth century BC, Hippocrates made careful observations of headaches. He was the first physician to recognize the headache as a symptom of disease. Imbalances of natural elements in the body were believed to cause illness. Hippocrates felt that a headache could be followed back to fluids circulating in the body known as “humors” rising from the liver to the head.He felt that bleeding the patient could be done to drain the excess humors and that using herbs on the head could draw the humors out.

.600 years after Hippocrates,the Roman physician Galen, used the phrase “hemicrania” for what is commonly referred to as migraines today. Galen stated “How constantly do we see the head attacked with pain when yellow bile is contained in the stomach: as also the pain forthwith ceasing when the bile has been vomited.” For 1500 years after Hippocrates, the treatment for headaches was almost completley based on his believes. Even into the late 1800’s, many physicians prescribed “liver pills” for migraines. Hippocrates also found that headaches were often associated with physical exertion such as exercise or sex.

A number of very strange remedies were widely used for a number of years. The Scientist, Incipit Epistula Vulturus in 800 AD Wrote” The bones from the head of the vulture, wrapped in deerskin, will cure any headache; its brain, mixed with the very best of oil and put up the nose, will expel all ailments of the head.” The 13th century saw the introduction of the first pain relieving drugs. These were very crude in form. For example, Italian monks would make poultices out of cloth wrapped around opium. These would then be soaked in vinegar and applied to the patient’s head. The vinegar helped to open the pores of the skin allowing the opium to be absorbed.. The Incas knew of the pain killing and numbing properties of cocaine. They would treat headaches by making an incision in the patient’s head and dripping the juice from the coca leaves into it. This was long before the yuppie movement of the 1980’s.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1180), a nun who had visions, wrote detailed descriptions of the visions that she experienced. These descriptions are so detailed that they give conclusive evidence that she suffered from migraines. It is believed that her mystical visions were the result of these migraines. She wrote, ‘I saw a great star, most splendid and beautiful, and with it an exceeding multitude of falling sparks with which the star followed southward … and suddenly they were all annihilated, being turned into black coals … and cast into the abyss so that I could see them no more”. As a result of modern medicine, things have improved to quite a degree.

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