10 Weird Medieval Medical Practices That Actually Work

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4. Cauterization Of Wounds

Photo credit: themedicinejournal.com

One of the much less fun methods of healing people that stems from the Middle Ages is the process of cauterization, which could be summed up as a rudimentary form of surgery. Cauterization was used for all types of things, not just men who had their arms chopped off on the battlefield. In those cases, they had to cauterize the remainder to keep the men from bleeding out in minutes. However, cauterization also treated infections and smaller injuries.

We have quite a lot of evidence of even these smaller types of cauterization, some less than 2.5 centimeters (1 in) in diameter. Cauterization is both extremely dangerous and effective in treating wounds, so it’s a bit of a double-edged sword.

Its effectiveness lies in its ability to stop bleeding and seal wounds. Its dangers stem from its changing of the chemical proteins in the flesh which can increase the likelihood and rapidity of infection at the site of injury.

While dangerous, if there’s little else around and immense blood loss is taking place, cauterization can definitely save a life, at least for a little while. However, this occurs at the expense of a possible infection growing underneath the cauterized tissue and spreading rapidly.[7]

The means of cauterization depended on the site and the injury being treated. Sometimes, a flat surface would be used. At other times, a red-hot poker would be stuffed into the location of the wound to cauterize even the inside. There’s no doubt that the patient had to be held down while this happened.

3. The Catheter

Photo credit: Mikael Häggstrom

The catheter was a medieval treatment most commonly used for bladder infections that would stop up the urinary tract, disallowing the flow of urine outside of the body. The old-fashioned catheter was a long, pointed, metal object that you hoped was clean before it was shoved inside you and wrestled around until the obstruction was cleared.

The catheters were curved to follow the natural course of the urethra up into the body. Typically, several people would hold a patient down while the surgeon inserted the catheter into the person’s body and try to clear the obstruction. Ouch.

The old-style catheters actually worked, just nowhere near as effectively as today’s catheters that more closely resemble straws and seek to channel the fluid out of the body rather than clearing the obstruction with brute force.[8]

2. Cataract Removal

Photo credit: ibtimes.co.uk

Cataract removal is nothing new as people have had issues with cataracts since, well, forever. Cataracts are a buildup of proteins in the eye causing cloudy spots and vision. In medieval times, the only option for removal was using a very sharp blade, similar to a scalpel, and the surgeon would simply cut them out.[9]

It should be noted here that surgeons of the day were typically barbers or engaged in some other profession. They just also happened to do surgery when needed. Barbers used blades, and surgeons used blades. Makes sense, right?

This is why barbershops still have the red-and-white signs where the two colors swirl around outside their establishments. Red represents the blood of surgery (or bloodletting), and white stands for the healing of the bandaged wound. In some places in America, this has been changed to red, white, and blue for obvious reasons.

Imagine it’s 1387 and you’re suffering from cataracts. So you go to your nearest barbershop and just hope that they’ve done enough surgeries to become moderately skilled as they plunge a scalpel toward your naked eye. This was obviously terrifying, but it was the best thing they had at the time. And it definitely worked as long as the person performing the task had a steady hand and was a good surgeon.

1. Hemorrhoids

For medieval Europeans, the treatment for battle wounds was cauterization. So it was only a matter of time before inquisitive minds found another use for the red-hot pokers they had lying around—the burning off of hemorrhoids. Yes, in the Middle Ages, they would actually burn off your hemorrhoids with one of the hot pokers that had just rested in a fire until it was glowing orange.

Of course, this meant that simply resting the heated metallic surface on the hemorrhoids would suffice if they were external. But if they were internal, the device might need to be inserted to clear the hemorrhoid.

Interestingly, this is still the hemorrhoid treatment today when creams and topical ointments fail. Many times, people will turn to laser surgery to remove the obstructions and end the pain or itchiness that stem from hemorrhoids.[10]

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