10 Bizarre Treatments Doctors Used to Think Were Legit

By: Maria Trimarchi  | 
It seems likely that at some point in the future, we’ll look back at the practice of injecting botulinum toxin A into our faces as rather silly.
©Digital Vision/Thinkstock
Key Takeaways
  • Tobacco smoke enemas were used in the 17th and 18th centuries to warm the body and stimulate respiration.
  • Mercury treatments were used for various medical conditions including syphilis, despite causing tooth loss, organ damage and death.
  • Whirling chairs were a 19th-century psychiatric treatment meant to cure mental illnesses by spinning patients until they passed out.

More than 6 million botulinum toxin type A injections were performed in 2012, one of the most common cosmetic surgery procedures. But someday, we humans may look back on all those Botox injections and shake our heads. "What were we thinking, injecting ourselves with this lethal, paralyzing toxin in an effort to recapture our youthfulness?" we'll wonder, shaking our heads at how barbaric the idea sounds [source: ASPS]. It sounds like a strange thing to do, kind of how smoking cigarettes was once considered a treatment for asthma.

We view these medical practices and beliefs -- whether ancient, or fairly recent ideas now debunked -- through our 21st-century eyes, and sometimes we just don't get it. Although the ancient Egyptians practiced what was at the time fairly advanced medicine, they believed the brain, for instance, cooled the blood while the heart was responsible for intelligence and thought. Even Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, didn't get some things right -- consider, for instance, his belief in the "wandering womb." Here we've collected only 10 from a long list of medical practices that once prevailed but now seem, well, peculiar, and we'll kick it off with a smoke -- although probably not how you normally think of smoking.


10: Tobacco Smoke Enemas

You’re going to blow tobacco smoke WHERE?
© nikkytok/iStock/Thinkstock

If you needed immediate lifesaving treatment during the 17th and 18th centuries, you might have found yourself being given a tobacco enema. That's right, literally blowing smoke up the keister. There was even a device designed for such an enema -- a "resuscitator kit" complete with rubber rectal tubes and a pair of bellows.

The idea here was the tobacco smoke would warm up an almost-dead body and kick start respiration. While it was first tried on drowning victims, tobacco enemas became a fashionable way to treat everything from colds, headaches, hernias, typhoid fever, cholera and even death itself. It's the nicotine in the tobacco that was at the heart of this so-called cure. Nicotine, the active ingredient, acts as a stimulant in your body, stimulating your adrenal glands to produce adrenaline (the hormone epinephrine). Makes sense -- except that it isn't effective (or healthy) used as an enema. By 1811, scientists discovered the toxic effects of nicotine on the human heart, and resuscitator kits were shelved.


9: Mercury

Nope, mercury can’t make you immortal. Sorry, Qin Shi Huang.

It's said that China's first emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried in a tomb ringed by rivers of liquid mercury, which is kind of ironic since he died after he ingested toxic amounts of the heavy metal trying to make himself immortal. That immortality plan obviously didn't work out -- he didn't live to see 40.

Mercury has been used as an antiseptic and for treating skin diseases, and has been compounded in everyday products such as saline solutions and cosmetics. If you were unfortunate enough to suffer from syphilis before penicillin hit the scene in the 1940s, your doctor would probably treat your STD with mercury, prescribing for you a mercurial -- ointment, pill, or potion -- to cure the problem. However, mercurials introduced a whole new set of problems, everything from tooth loss to damage to organs (often liver and kidney) and the central nervous system to the biggest problematic side effect of all: death.


8: Whirling Chairs

If you think spinning until you pass out sounds like a good treatment plan, this is your new medical team.

The whirling chair was part of a mid-19th century movement away from the practices of chaining and locking the mentally ill in dark, unsanitary cells and toward more humane (at least considered to be so at the time) methods of psychiatric treatments. These also included ice water showers or baths, purgatives (laxatives), insulin coma therapy and even frontal lobotomy.

A whirling chair is exactly what it sounds like: It was a chair modified with a spring and lever system used to spin patients until they passed out. The belief was that all that spinning would cure conditions such as schizophrenia and other mental illnesses by shuffling the contents of the brain [source: Korn].


7: Radioactive Water

You’re not going to cure anything by drinking radioactive water. You probably won’t get super powers, either.

The beginning of the 21st century brought us the kombucha beverage craze, but during the early 1900s it was radioactive water that flew off the shelves. It was considered in the medical community to cure mental illness and even prevent aging because of its ability to stimulate cell activity. It was so popular that even the U.S. surgeon general at the time considered it a legitimate treatment for diarrhea and malaria.

Radium began appearing not only in water, but also in infused chocolates, contraceptives, toothpaste and suppositories (to name a few of many). Spa-goers started visiting radium spas -- previously marketed as the benign-sounding "hot springs" -- for their healing drinks and soaks.


Today we know that radiation exposure is deadly, and that although the body is able to filter out about 80 percent of toxic radium we may ingest, the remaining 20 percent collects in our bones, blood and tissues. And that ability to stimulate cell activity? It increases our chance of cancer (such as bone cancer, leukemia and lymphoma) and other health problems [source: EPA].

6: Urotherapy

There is no evidence that drinking urine or applying it to injuries is beneficial.
© belchonock/iStock/Thinkstock

It turns out Tang isn't the only beverage served in space. A specially-designed toilet-to-tap waste recycling system allows astronauts to recycle their urine into fuel -- and into drinking water. But that's a beneficial system because it makes use of the limited resources space travelers have to deal with, not because of any supposed health benefits.

Water is the main ingredient in your urine, but it's not all water -- the next notable component is urea, and urea is considered to have antimicrobial properties: antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral [source: Stresing]. Despite that trifecta of healing potential, there's no evidence urine has any health or healing benefits. There was a time, though, when the medical community considered drinking urine or applying it as a poultice an effective treatment for maladies ranging from acne and asthma to migraines and cancer. Some still believe it will even whiten teeth. And although it's probably not dangerous if you drink in small quantities, urine therapy is not recommended as a cure for anything. No, it won't treat a jellyfish sting, either (and, in fact, may make it worse).


5: Vibrators to Treat Female 'Hysteria'

She looks placid and relaxed, but odds are good that a doctor would have diagnosed her with hysteria.
© Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

There was a time when everyone knew for certain that women didn't have orgasms. Women were, however, prone to suffering from a psychiatric disorder called hysteria, and needed their physician to perform a special type of pelvic physical therapy to achieve something called "hysterical paroxysm." In today's parlance, that's an orgasm.

Pelvic massages were popular for ages -- beginning in ancient Greece as an early method of treating a "wandering womb" and persisting in Western medical practice until the 1920s. By the end of the 19th century it was estimated that 75 percent of American women suffered from hysteria. The treatment was so popular, in fact, that physicians sought a faster, more efficient way to perform the treatment than with their own hands. The first electric vibrator hit the scene in the late 1800s -- that's before the vacuum cleaner was invented -- which decreased treatment times from as much as an hour to as little as 10 minutes.


In the 1920s, vibrators began to appear in erotic films and that put them out of favor in the physician's office. By the beginning of the 20th century, women could choose and buy their own vibrators from publications such as the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Before women had the popular Hitachi Magic Wand and the Rabbit, they had the pricey $200 Chattanooga (plus shipping) – in 19th-century dollars [source: Maines].

4: Leeches and Bloodletting

Leeches are still used in some medical treatments today.
© Zoonar RF/Thinkstock

Once upon a time you would visit your barber for a shave and a haircut -- and you might also have him extract a rotting tooth or even set a broken arm. Barbers, known then as barber-surgeons, were also bloodletters. (If you ever wondered why a barber pole is red and white, it's from this history of bloodletting).

Bloodletting was once practiced as a way to release evil spirits from the body, and it was also considered a treatment for a variety of conditions, from nosebleeds to pneumonia. It was also key therapy in what's known as humoral medicine, which is medicine based on the four humors in the body: phlegm, yellow bile, black bile and blood. Drawing blood was thought to help keep those humors balanced. While bloodletting can be traced back at least 3,000 years, most of us probably think of its practice in Victorian England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when millions of leeches were put into service instead of lancets (or, in ancient times, a thorn or sharp stick to cut open a vein).


Today, bloodletting still exists, although it's now known as phlebotomy therapy; it's used in limited instances such as to treat hemochromatosis (a condition where too much iron builds up in your body). Leeches, commonly used in bloodletting practices ever since the ancient Egyptians did employed them, also continue to have a place, albeit also limited, in modern medicine; the FDA approves of the use of the medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, as a medical device in reattachment surgery as well as in skin grafting procedures because of its anticoagulant properties.

3: Over-the-counter Morphine and Its Opiate Friends

What’s more wholesome than dosing your baby with morphine? A whole lot of things, including NOT giving your children opiates.
© Swim Ink 2, LLC/CORBIS

Opium-based morphine, named after the Greek god of dreams, was once a medicine chest staple. It continues to have a place in modern medicine -- in fact, more than 230 tons of the stuff is used for pain management on a yearly basis [source: Easton]. And even though there's been nearly 200 years of medical advancement since morphine was introduced, the opiate remains as problematic as it does beneficial. It's highly addictive and has side effects that include constipation, itching and severe nausea.

Morphine has a strong connection to battlefield medicine, used heavily to treat wound pain during the Civil and World Wars. In addition to its use in military medicine, morphine was once also commonly used as an at-home remedy. In 1900 you could buy over-the-counter opiates -- such as laudanum (an addictive mix of alcohol and opium) -- as well as cocaine, heroin, morphine and opium-based patent medicines to treat your colds, insomnia, menstrual cramps and whatever else might have ailed you. Morphine (and cocaine) injection kits were sold in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Even a teething baby could be soothed to sleep if you had opium-based elixirs on hand, such as the morphine-rich Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup.


2: Trepanation

Reproductions of trepanation woodcuts from a late 1500s field book of surgery.
© Heritage Images/Corbis, © Bettmann/CORBIS

Boring a hole in a patient's skull -- without any anesthesia, keep in mind -- was once considered good medicine. Trepanation is one of the oldest known surgical procedures, dating back as long ago as the Mesolithic era -- 10,000 B.C.E., before humans used metal tools. That also places it long before the medical pioneers Hippocrates in ancient Greece and Galen in ancient Rome got their hands on this technique.

Archaic medicine and cures tended to lean more toward mystical and ritualistic than scientific, and the practice of trepanning began in this way. Archaeologists theorize the technique allowed a practitioner to release the evil spirit (demons were considered the root of mental illness) trapped within the patient. There's evidence it was also used to treat migraines and epileptic seizures, and over the years developed as a neurosurgical intervention for head injuries such as skull fractures and bone contusions.


While it sounds barbaric, there's evidence that many patients survived the procedure. Just be sure not to press too hard when treating skull fractures, warns Galen, or the "patient immediately lose all sensation and becomes motionless" [source: Missios]. While that might sound obvious in the 21st century, that observation was an important discovery in anatomy and the human brain.

1: Cannibalism

Painting by Jan van Kessel (the Elder) depicting a scene of cannibalism in Brazil in 1644.
© Leemage/Corbis

Today's modern medicine sometimes uses a body to heal a body -- blood and organ donation, for example. But there used to be such a thing called corpse medicine. Seriously. Have a headache? The ancient Egyptians believed mummy powder would help -- and for a couple of centuries it was considered de rigueur to use ground up skull to treat a migraine. Muscle ache? Try rubbing some human fat on the spot. Epilepsy? The Romans believed drinking the blood of a gladiator was powerful enough to cure that condition. Human organs, fat, bones, blood and mummified remains were once considered magical, and ancient healers used cannibalistic remedies up until the 18th century. The general idea behind this practice was that the patient receiving the treatment would actually benefit from the soul and spirit of the donor (living or deceased) and its healing energy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why did people believe in treatments that now seem bizarre?
Many such treatments stemmed from a lack of understanding about disease and the human body, coupled with then-traditional beliefs and the absence of scientific medicine.
Have any bizarre treatments led to modern medical breakthroughs?
While most of these treatments are now discredited, the exploration of their effects has contributed to the development of modern medical principles.

Lots More Information

Author's Note: 10 Bizarre Treatments Doctors Used to Think Were Legit

Larval therapy. That's one I really wanted to include on this list. There were so many treatments to choose from, but this one couldn't really be included in the end as doctors still consider maggots a legit part of wound care, in particular for removing dead or infected tissue from a wound (called debridement). As it turns out, maggot debridement therapy really does work: It keeps wounds clean, doesn't harm healthy tissue (maggots aren't interested in your healthy bits), and appears to be a good way to fight superbugs. Still. Yuck.

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