A new study published in the journal BMC Medicine suggests that bloodletting might offer cardiovascular benefits to obese people with metabolic syndrome. Experts in the medical community have been contemplating on the revival of this long-abandoned procedure.
The early roots of bloodletting point out to its use on figures such as George Washington and Marie-Antoinette. History reveals that bloodletting was a common first-line treatment that was employed before any other.
The medical practice dates to as long as several thousand years ago. The doctor would open a vein with a lancet or sharpened piece of wood, causing blood to flow out and into a waiting receptacle. However, if you were lucky, leeches would perform the gruesome task in place of crude instruments.
Bloodletting is considered as one of medicine’s oldest practices. It is thought to have originated in ancient Egypt from which it then spread to Greece. The physicians in Greek such as Erasistratus, who lived in the third century B.C., believed that all illnesses stemmed from an excess of blood, or plethora.
Back in the second century A.D., the influential Galen of Pergamum expanded on Hippocrates’ earlier theory that good health required a perfect balance of the four “humors”—blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.
Pergamum’s writings and teachings made bloodletting a common technique throughout the Roman empire from which it was adopted in India and the Arab world as well.
During the medieval Europe, bloodletting became the standard treatment for various conditions. It was used in treating plague, smallpox, epilepsy and gout. Medical practitioners typically nicked veins or arteries in the forearm or neck, sometimes using a special tool featuring a fixed blade and known as a fleam.
Back in 1163 a church decree prohibited monks and priests, who often stood in as doctors, from performing bloodletting. The church despised the procedure. Shortly after the decree, barbers began offering a range of services that included bloodletting, cupping, tooth extractions, lancing and even amputations along with, trims and shaves.
However, bloodletting was not always used to cure ailments. Back in the pre-Columbian Mesoamerica bloodletting was believed to serve a very different purpose. The Maya priests and rulers used stone implements to pierce their soft body parts after which they offered their blood in sacrifice to their gods.
Shockingly, some believed that blood loss allowed individuals to enter trance-like states in which they reportedly experienced visions of deities.
As time went by, bloodletting as a medical procedure became slightly less painful with the advent in the 18th century of spring-loaded lancets and the scarificator. The device featured multiple blades that delivered a uniform set of parallel cuts.
Scarificators were respected by physicians and surgeons adorned the practice. The practice was generously prescribed to the most esteemed patients.
A great example was Marie-Antoinette who seemed to benefit from a healthy dose of bloodletting while giving birth to her first child, Marie-Thérèse, in 1778. The mother-to-be fainted, prompting her surgeon to wield his lancet. However, she immediately revived after the bloodletting.
On December 13, 1799, George Washington awoke with a bad sore throat and began to decline rapidly. In response, physicians drained an estimated 5 to 7 pints in less than 16 hours. Despite employing bloodletting, Washington died on December 17.
The death led to speculation that excessive blood loss contributed to his death. Bloodletting was also implicated in the death of Charles II, who was bled from the arm and neck after suffering a seizure in 1685.