History of Pain Relief
Archaic and Ancient world – since pain was little understood, many interpreted it as being a sign of an “alien” invasion of the body. When a person is physically hurt in a fall it is easy to understand, but the pain that internal disease can cause, without physical evidence of injury, is a bit more complex, therefore mystical explanations were invented. Due to this, pain management consisted of rituals performed by shamans, medicine men, and sorcerers to rid the body of the evil intruder, be it a demon, an evil spirit, or the like. Herbs and oils were used by these medicine men that might have actually provided some pain relief.
Egypt was actually the most advanced in medicinal healing during the ancient times. But even they used vomiting, sneezing, and urinating as ways to ease the pain since it was thought that the invading spirit could exit the body that way. Another pain relieving techniques was the application of fried frogs to lesions to the skin.
Several South American cultures regarded coca plants as sacred and there is evidence that they were used for pain control as early as 1300 B.C by the pre-Inca tribes in Peru and Ecuador. Coca leaves were chewed for pain relief, also the leaves were applied to the body as an anesthetic prior to surgery.
Opium was used for pain relief (and religious practices) in ancient Asian countries, India, and Egypt. From there it was introduced to the Middle East and Greece, and later to Europe. Opium was ingested as a pill, also as a topical application, and combined with other herbs for various aches. However, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how much of the opium use was for medical reasons and how much was for recreational and religious.
Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians used electrically charged fish to help relieve pain from arthritis, headaches, joint stiffness, and many other conditions by lowering the ailing limb into water with said fish in it.
Greeks also favored application of heat and cold, bathing, and bloodletting for pain relief.
Romans had a prevailing concoction for pain relief called Theriac, based on a philosophy of Galen, a prominent physician, that remained unchanged for until late 18th century (talk about longevity). This 70 plus ingredient recipe, a big component of which being opium, was used as a universal treatment for any kind of pain.
There was little development in the pain management arena during the middle ages, we are talking approximately 1000 years! This is due to the fact that religion took over medical development. Pain was seen as a sign of deserved punishment from God to people. Pain was to be accepted and even revered. Prayer was seen as the only solution for pain relief. If one was to seek out options outside of priests and religion than opium was pretty much the only pain relief solution people had in Europe in the middle ages and even after.
In later middle ages, things started slowly changing with the development of the first medical school in Italy (1150 AD) and opening up of more medical study in general. Slowly ancient texts began to be translated and studied and slowly development began.
More progress took place during the Renaissance as well as 17th and 18th centuries. Opium, mandrake, henbane, and lettuce were all used for pain relief, absorbed into a sponge that was either sniffed or applied directly to the ailment, provided the pain relief or anesthesia for surgery. This sponge was called somniferant sponge – “Spongia somniferum”. Bloodletting, vesicatories, and scarifications were also popular treatments, to draw out noxious substances.
17th and 18th centuries saw the evolution of many new theories of pain that formed the basis for modern pain management techniques.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, pain management practices as we know them today came into existence and began their advancement til this day. Even now, more is being learned and improved in our knowledge of pain and pain management.