15 Weird Medical Treatments That We Used to Think Worked

Arsenic was once used as a medical treatment. Cropped for use as tease only.
mercury medicine
Mercury was given to patients intravenously to treat syphilis, heal wounds and combat skin issues. Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons

Figuring out the best medical treatments can take a lot of trial and error. Once medical breakthroughs are made, the old science can seem a little ... wacky. There are probably a handful of practices used today that we'll look back on later and wonder what we were thinking.

Here's a list of medical treatments that doctors used to think worked, but now we know better.

1. Mercury

Mercury was used by many cultures, including ancient Greece, Egypt and China, to heal wounds and combat skin issues. It was the common cure for syphilis from the 15th to the 20th century. Once penicillin was discovered in the 1940s, the mercury treatment soon fell out of fashion.

In his quest to find an elixir that would bring him immortality, it's believed that Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang turned to liquid mercury. As we now know, mercury is poisonous. In the end, he met his demise from mercury poisoning.

2. Bloodletting

drawing blood
Bloodletting dates back all the way to the 13th century as evidenced by this French drawing. Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

Bloodletting was a treatment where the patient bleeds out so that ailments ranging from syphilis, to headaches, to nosebleeds, to pneumonia could be cured. It was also used as method of casting out evil demons from the body.

The procedure dates back 2,500 years and was practiced in ancient Egypt and Greece. Bloodletting eventually became quite popular in England by the early 19th century. Leeches were commonly used, as were metal instruments such as a lancet.

One main use for bloodletting is what's known as humoral medicine. Humoral medicine has its basis in the belief that the body has four major fluids that keep the body balanced: phlegm, black bile, yellow bile and blood. It was thought that if there was an excess or deficiency of any of the four humors, that letting out blood could help bring balance.

A form of bloodletting is used today in what's known as phlebotomy therapy. The use is not very widespread, but its main application is the treatment of hemochromatosis — a condition where your body creates too much iron.

3. Trepanation

This illustration from a 14th century French medical manuscript depicts a doctor cutting open a patient's skull with a hammer and blade. Everett Historical/Shutterstock

Trepanning is the process of drilling a hole through the head. Like bloodletting, trepanning also was used to give evil spirits an exit strategy from the body, as it was believed that demons were the cause of psychiatric conditions such as psychosis and hysteria.

In addition to its mystical applications, trepanation was used to treat migraines, epilepsy and head injuries such as bone bruises and skull fractures.

The practice was used as far back as the Neolithic era, but began to lose steam in the early 1900s.

4. Corpse medicine

Before organ and blood transplants, there was corpse medicine where body parts and fluids from the deceased were used as medicine. Blood and mummy remnants were believed to possess mystical healing powers which allowed patients to recover from ailments.

Egyptians would rub human body fat on aching muscles and would ingest mummy powder for headaches and bits of ground up skull for migraines.

Throughout the Renaissance era, Europeans in England, Germany, Italy and France also made use of mummy powder, which was a pretty hot commodity amongst the wealthy and impoverished alike.

In ancient Rome, they used to drink the blood of fallen gladiators in order to cure epilepsy.

5. Hemiglossectomy

Before there was speech therapy, there was a practice known as a hemiglossectomy. Medieval medical practitioners thought removing part of the tongue was an effective approach for tackling speech issues such as stuttering or stammering. But as you can imagine, cutting off part of someone's tongue didn't exactly help with any speech defects.

6. Urine therapy

Everyone from the ancient Romans to the Egyptians, Indians and Chinese turned to urine therapy (also known as urotherapy), which was believed to fight off everything from strep throat to aging. Before teeth-whitening strips, urine was a go-to option for a brighter smile.

To this day, some people say peeing on a jellyfish sting will relieve the pain, but that's a myth.

7. Radioactive water

Today, we're well aware of the harmful effects of radiation, but in the 1900s radioactive water was used a treatment for mental illness and age prevention.

Aside from water, radium also was eventually added to chocolates, toothpastes, contraceptives and suppositories. At the height of its popularity, the U.S. surgeon general believed radium to be a genuine and effective treatment for malaria and diarrhea.

Radium was also used as a spa treatment in hot springs.

8. Narcotics

While today, morphine is used to treat strong pain in hospital settings, it was commonly used as an at-home remedy in the early parts of the 20th century.

In 1900, morphine, laudanum, heroin, opium and even cocaine could be bought over the counter to treat common colds, menstrual cramps and insomnia. Injection kits were even sold in the former Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. Not only that, but in the 1890s, Bayer sold heroin as a panacea for children's coughs.

Many doctors advocated the use of cocaine as a pick-me-up for depression.

9. Tobacco smoke enemas

tobacco smoke enema
The resuscitation set contains the equipment necessary to inject into the lungs, stomach or rectum. The bellows could be adapted to inflate the lungs with fresh air or to introduce more stimulating vapors such as tobacco in an attempt to revive the patient. Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

A tobacco smoke enema was like an antiquated EpiPen. Nicotine is a stimulant, so medical professionals sometimes used nicotine to resuscitate someone whose life was in immediate danger.

The method is quite odd. Put simply, a doctor would blow smoke right up the butt of a dying person. It was thought that the nicotine could stimulate their adrenal glands, produce adrenaline and immediately revive the individual. They even had a resuscitator kit composed of bellows and rubber rectal tubes.

The practice was first used on those who were drowning, but smoke enemas were eventually used to combat headaches, typhoid fever, cholera, hernias, colds and death in general. By 1811, the harmful effects of nicotine were revealed, and smoke enemas were put to rest.

10. Vibrators for female hysteria

For some time, women were believed to often suffer from the psychiatric disorder of hysteria. What exactly did physicians do to control the frenzy? Physicians performed a type of pelvic therapy to induce a "hysterical paroxysm," or in other words, an orgasm.

At the end of the 19th century, roughly 75 percent of American women were seen to be victims of hysteria. With such an influx of women in need of the therapeutic pelvic practice, doctors decided they needed a way to perform the practice more quickly.

That's where electric vibrators came in. By the 1800s, the use of electric vibrators reduced the treatment time to 10 minutes as opposed to a laborious hour.

Once vibrators started showing up in erotic movies, their application in the medical community began to decline. Eventually, women were able to buy vibrators on their own in the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog.

11. Electric shock for erectile disfunction

If you dealt with erectile disfunction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, you may have turned to an electric belt known as the Pulvermacher chain. The belt was designed to send electric currents and stimulation to the abdomen, which would supposedly treat male impotence.

By 1950, the belt was no longer used.

12. Lobotomy

lobotomy tool
A lobotomy drill was used to drill two holes in the skull, and fibers that connected the frontal and central parts of the brain were removed. Bjoertvedt/Wikimedia Commons

Frontal lobotomies were a type of treatment used in mental hospitals to help cure psychosis, schizophrenia and other mental disorders. The process consisted of sticking a thin, icepick-like tool through the eye and into the prefrontal cortex of the patient's brain. Once the tool was in place, it was struck with a hammer. By doing this, the prefrontal cortex is essentially cut away from the rest of the brain.

Though some patients no longer experienced psychosis after lobotomies, others entered a vegetative state. The procedure was used mostly through the 1940s and 50s but was soon abandoned.

13. Malaria therapy

In the 1920's, Austrian physician Julius Wagner-Jauregg found that syphilis could be treated by inducing patients with fevers caused by Malaria using parasites. The practiced was discontinued once it was understood that malaria is in fact a deadly disease.

14. Arsenic

arsenic as medicine
This lithograph from 1841 shows a chemist giving a demonstration involving arsenic to an audience. Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

Beginning with the ancient Chinese, Romans, and Greeks up to the 20th century, arsenic was used to treat a number of ailments such as syphilis, headaches, fevers and even blood disease.

Arsenic can be found in natural groundwater, but its inorganic form is extremely toxic. Inorganic arsenic can cause cancer, lesions, developmental issues, heart disease and death, according to the World Health Organization.

15. Chloroform

chloroform vial
This vial of chloroform was owned by Sir James Cantlie (1851-1926), a surgeon and medical administrator. Wellcome Images/Wikimedia Commons

From 1865-1920, chloroform was used as an anesthetic in 80 to 95 percent of procedures where anesthesia was necessary, such as surgery and childbirth. All a patient had to do was sniff a rag soaked in chloroform, causing the patient to become unconscious, and the doctors would take it from there.

Once it was discovered in the 1950s that nitrous oxide could be used as an anesthetic, the days of chloroform were over.

What will they think of next? Only time will tell.