Curing Headaches in Georgian Times

Georgian physicians claimed there were all sorts of causes for headaches. Some of the stranger causes included atmospheric changes, bile in the blood, too much iron, bowel issues, thunderstorms, and indigestion. Just as Georgian physicians believed there were many causes for headaches, physicians also offered a wide variety of solutions to headache sufferers. Some of the more popular recommendations are listed below:

ANIMAL MAGNETISM. This was an invisible force within animals based on a mysterious magnetic fluid that produced physical healing. It was discovered by a German doctor named Franz Mesmer. He provided treatments for individual patients as well as groups of patients at the same time. Single patient treatments included the patient facing him, touching knee-to-knee, while Mesmer made “passes” with his hands down the length of the patient’s body. Sometimes, he would press a patient’s hypochondrium region (just below the diaphragm) to effect a cure and his pressing could last for hours. Mesmer’s techniques came under scrutiny in 1784 when King Louis XVI established a commission to examine his work. The commission agreed Mesmer had cured patients, but they also determined there was no such thing as magnetic fluid. Because of their findings, they attributed the cures to either charlatanry or patient imagination, thereby debunking Mesmer.

A practitioner of mesmerism using animal magnetism on a woman. Author’s collection.

ANTISPASMODICS. Antispasmodics were thought to help spasms in the head and quiet nervous headaches and attending irritations. Many antispasmodics were herbal remedies. Some of the more popular antispasmodics used were valerian, camphor, and, of course, opium.

BLISTERING. Ointments rubbed on the scalp that created blisters were thought to bring the blood to the surface and thereby lessen irritation within the head. To help alleviate headaches, blistering ointments were also applied to areas behind the ears, at the temples, the nape of the neck, between the shoulders, or on the back. To learn more about blistering click here.

BLOODLETTING. Bloodletting was said to help headaches when “the head contained a quantity of blood greater than usual.”[1] It was also employed in cases where pain in the head developed because of a fever. There were several types of bloodletting:

  • ATERIOTOMY – This bloodletting technique was used to lessen the amount of blood that was flowing to the brain. It involved opening the temporal artery or the arteries behind the ears.
  • PHLEBOTOMY – This involved an incision in a vein and was used on certain types of headaches or for certain people. A person was bled at the arms or near the temples. Physicians also prescribed this procedure for women with menstrual problems, who where then bled, cupped, or had leeches attached near their uterus. In dire cases, if a headache was long standing or severe, doctors suggested opening and bleeding a jugular vein.

COLD WATER APPLIED TO THE HEAD. As sweat was thought to be a disease, those with headaches who also sweated were said to be helped by having cold water poured over their heads or applied with a sponge.

COMPRESSION. One cure was nothing more than a handkerchief tightly bound around the head so as to to create “a contraction of the dilated vessels.”[2]

CUCUPHA. This was an odoriferous cap, called either a cucpha or cucufa. The cap covered the head and had quilted into it certain chephalic spices, such as lavender, rosemary, etc. Supposedly, the spices helped alleviate the headache.

CUTTING OFF THE HAIR. The weight of a person’s hair was thought to sometimes cause headaches, and to relieve them, sometimes the person’s hair was cut.

DRINKING HOT WATER. Hot water in the stomach was said to increase the action in the cerebral arteries and the lower extremities, which then supposedly relieved the headache.

ELECTRIZATION. In cases of nervous headaches, electrization was used. This involved “electric fluid … thrown with a wooden, and sometimes with a metal point, all round the head successively.”[3] However, this was dangerous as there were some instances where people experienced convulsions because of the treatment.

The Headache by George Cruikshank, Headaches

The Headache by George Cruikshank. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

OLEUM SUCCINI. Today this oil is called oil of amber. It was a volatile, colorless or pale yellow oil that functioned as a stimulant and antispasmodic. Supposedly rubbing this oil along the spine so as to create friction cured a headache.

PEDILUVIUM. Bathing the feet, or pediluvium as it was called, was said to cause the circulation in the veins to accelerate, which then alleviated the headache. To accomplish this, the water needed to be hot enough to redden the skin and pediluvium was usually done after bleeding because it was said to be “most efficacious” at that time.

PURGING. Doctors believed that a person’s bowels could cause headaches. Therefore, doctors gave patients purgatives to help patients evacuate their bowels. Purging, along with bloodletting, was frequently prescribed for pregnant women suffering from headaches because purging could be continued for a long time. Purging was also thought to be effective because it supposedly contracted dilated blood vessels in the brain.

SNUFF. This was recommended because it caused people to sneeze and sneezing was thought to be one cure for a headache. In fact, one writer stated sneezing because of snuff promoted “mucous discharge from the nostrils, and thence it [was] … occasionally of service in headachs, and complaints in the eyes.”[4]

TONICS OR TINCTURES. Some of these remedies included cichona (bark) or sulphate of quinine. Cichona worked as a muscle relaxer and a quinine had anti-inflammatory properties. Later, quinine would become the medicine of choice for malaria, but during Georgian times quinine was believed to quiet nervous headaches.

VOMITING. Vomiting was thought to cure certain types of headaches because it balanced the circulation, promoted perspiration, and awakened torpid secretions. However, it was also considered dangerous when practiced on elderly people.

References:

  • [1] Vaughn, Walter, An Essay on Headachs, and On Their Cure, 1825, p. 228.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 234.
  • [3] Tacher, James, The American New Dispensatory, 1810, p. 403.
  • [4] The Code of Health and Longevity, 1818, p. 469.

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