A Taste of Your Own Medicine, Columns
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Ancient Medical Practices Still in Use Today

ATOYOMMedicine is rapidly evolving: new drugs, new devices and new techniques are constantly introduced to improve patient care. And yet, despite these many innovative advances, there are some mainstays of modern medicine that are thousands of years old and have withstood the test of time.

Acupuncture is a form of alternative medicine that was developed in China approximately 4,000 years ago. Its intended purpose was to restore the body’s inner balance by placing needles at specific pressure points. Today, people seek acupuncture treatment for relaxation. Others use it for pain relief. It can even be utilized as anesthesia during surgery, including invasive procedures like open heart surgery. Acupuncture has also found a place in preventive care, particularly for its effects in the setting of hypertension. Research has found that regular acupuncture treatments can lower blood pressure. One randomized controlled trial found that mean blood pressure decreased after acupuncture treatments but normalized when checked three and six months after treatments were completed. This could lead to acupuncture being used an adjunct or sole treatment in individuals with mild hypertension.

Honey has been used medicinally for thousands of years, and doctors continue to discover its powerful healing properties. Not only can it be used to sweeten your tea, but honey can also be placed on wounds and burns. A research study revealed that honey dressing was more effective than silver sulfadiazine dressing in burn victims. Patients treated with honey dressing had burns that healed earlier and with lower infection rates. This is attributed to honey’s antioxidant and anti-microbial properties. Honey is an ideal choice for treatment because it is cheap and readily available.

Craniotomies have been used since prehistoric times and may have been used during the Stone Age to treat migraines and epilepsy, with archaeologists finding circular holes at specific locations in the skulls from the era. Now, a craniotomy is a common neurosurgery procedure for the management of brain tumors, skull fractures and hematomas. It can be performed under general anesthesia or even under local anesthesia—imagine being awake while a surgeon burrs a hole in your skull.

Today, prosthetics come in many forms, including artificial limbs, hearing aids, knee replacements, dentures and artificial heart valves. Medicine has come a long way since the oldest prosthetic was discovered on an Ancient Egyptian female mummy. She had two prosthetic toes made of leather and wood. This 2,700-year-old mummy was first discovered in 2011. Researchers were skeptical as to whether the toes were actually functional or were created for purely cosmetic reasons. This led researchers to test them out on people who needed a spare toe (or two). It turns out that those ancient prosthetic toes really do work and can help people walk again.

Cauterization was first described by the Greek physician Hippocrates as burning a part of the body using heat. Dr. William Bovie changed that in 1920 by inventing electrosurgery, which uses an electrical current instead of heat to cut tissue or coagulate blood, which stops bleeding. The tool is referred to as the Bovie after its inventor and is an invaluable tool that is used in a plethora of surgical procedures.

Caesarian sections, or C-sections, have been performed for thousands of years. In fact, it was Ancient Roman law that a pregnant female who was dying or dead have a mandatory C-section to remove the fetus. Prior to this law, both the mother and fetus died, but once the law was introduced, there was a chance for the fetus to survive. Contrary to popular belief, the term C-section is probably not named after Julius Caesar, because his mother survived childbirth and therefore would not have been a candidate for a C-section. Instead, one of Caesar’s relatives may have had a C-section, which led to the confusion over the origin of the procedure’s name. Still, C-sections are commonly performed and at least 30% of U.S. births are by C-section.

A tracheostomy is a common surgical procedure performed on intensive care unit patients that has been in use since ancient times. The word tracheostomy is used interchangeably with tracheotomy: both refer to a hole being made in the trachea. It can be performed at the bedside or in the operating room, depending on the patient’s circumstances. The procedure is performed when there is an upper airway obstruction, a patient cannot be intubated, a patient has cancer or a traumatic injury to the head or neck, or a patient is having surgery to the head or neck. A tracheostomy is most often performed in a patient who is anticipated to be on mechanical ventilation for a long period.The Greek physician Asclepius is credited for doing the first tracheostomy in 124 B.C.

Speaking of Asclepius, there is also a Greek god known as Asclepius, the god of medicine and healing. Asclepius and his daughters Hygeia, the goddess of hygiene, and Panacea, the goddess of universal remedy, along with Apollo, the god of music, healing and prophecy, are mentioned in the Hippocratic Oath that we still recite today:

“I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygeia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement…”

These medical practices may be ancient, but they are still used today because they are tried and true. It seems that ancient methods aren’t so ancient after all. It looks like the saying is true: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Valentina Bonev Valentina Bonev (21 Posts)

Columnist Emeritus and in-Training Staff Member

Loma Linda University Medical Center

A Taste Of Your Own Medicine is a column that gives you a taste of medicine. It focuses on important and interesting topics relating to medicine and being a medical student.

Valentina is a general surgery resident at Loma Linda University Medical Center. She graduated from University of California, Irvine School of Medicine.