Five strange medical procedures that doctors once thought made sense

Five strange medical procedures that doctors once thought made sense

What’s the strangest medical procedure you’ve ever been subjected to? Fortunately, for most of us, it’s probably nothing more than having an ingrown toenail removed or maybe a particularly awkward smear test. But no matter how uncomfortable it may be, if your doctor is telling you you need this, then they must be right, surely? Well, history says maybe not.

Medicine is a constantly evolving field. In the last hundred years, we've gone from a world where tuberculosis was an almost guaranteed death sentence to being able to stop it at the source, and added IVF, keyhole surgery and face transplants to the "totally achievable" list. But that doesn't mean there weren't some procedures that science got really wrong; it's time to take a look at some of the procedures that in hindsight seem a little ill-judged.

1. Massaging the skull to diagnose mental illness

During the 19th century, phrenology, a now-discredited strand of medicine that studies the shape, lumps and bumps of the human skull, became popular as a way of diagnosing different types of psychological disorders. Patients would have their head massaged and their "illnesses" would be identified on the basis of how their skulls matched up to various scientific drawings, many of which were put together from the investigation of criminals and patients already in asylums. Among the cures for these mental illnesses were lobotomies and extended bed rest, both of which have now also been disregarded.

2. Tongue Removal

Today, "hemiglossectomy" - that is, the removal or partial removal of the tongue - is sometimes used to treat oral cancer. But back in medieval times, it had a much stranger use: treating speech impediments. Perhaps the most confusing procedure on the list, it's hard to see how anyone ever thought that removing part of the tongue would make it easier for people to speak clearly. Worryingly, pulling out tongues was also used as a torture technique at this time, which pretty much gives you an insight into how painful it must have been. Eeeech!

      3. Cock Shocks

Yes, this is exactly what it sounds like - an electric shock to the penis, designed to combat “seminal weakness, losses, drains, drains, impotency or lost manhood”. The shocks were delivered by a belt that came complete with a loop which was to be applied directly to the penis. Despite sounding truly terrible, thousands were sold in the US between 1890 and 1920. Incredibly, this one has actually come back into fashion with scientists now trialling whether or not low-level electric shocks delivered to the testicles can help mobilise sperm.

4. Trepanning

If you somehow managed to make a massive hole in your head today, someone would (hopefully) call you a doctor pretty quickly; but until the early 20th century, it was the doctors that were making the holes. Known as trepanation, this process involves drilling a hole into the skull and has been used as a “cure” for a whole range of ailments, from migraines to meningitis and epilepsy. It’s actually one of the world’s oldest surgical procedures and although it sounds like it should kill you in an instant, there is evidence that people frequently survived the process. While it sounds like something most people would never even consider, there are still groups campaigning for its return to medicine. Count me out, please. 

5. Mercury treatment

Syphilis is one of the STDs that's on the rise again in the 21st century, but it's probably best that we don't go back to the old-school way of treating it: with mercury. Until the 1940s, when penicillin started being used as a cure, infected individuals were provided with a mercurial paste, the side effects of which include tooth loss, ulceration and neurological complications. We’re not really sure what’s worse: a slow and painful decline into the longterm effects of syphilis or being gradually poisoned by the medication that’s meant to be treating you? Neither sound great, to be honest. 

So next time you’re feeling sorry for yourself in the doctor’s surgery you might want to spare a thought for the patients of times past because as all of these prove, things could be much, much worse. It does make you wonder though... which everyday procedures are we all lapping up right now that will be laughed at in 100 years time?