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14 Very Unfortunate Medical Treatments That Actually Used To Exist

Medicine wouldn't be where it is today without leeches and urine cocktails.

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1. Bloodletting

Bloodletting is a process that removes a large quantity of blood, often by making an incision in the forearm vein — but leeches and cupping were also used. Doctors believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids, and removing blood would restore that balance. Because, sure!

Bloodletting was used to treat everything from the plague and smallpox to epilepsy. The practice began with the Ancient Egyptians and remained a popular treatment well into the 19th century, despite significant scientific advances in medicine. It didn't last in the 20th century, as doctors realized that blood loss only made patients sicker...or killed them. It's also maybe the real reason George Washington died.

2. Trepanation

Trepanation involves drilling or boring a small hole in the skull to expose the brain. Evidence shows that trepanning was around as early as the neolithic era and it was performed up until the 19th century — often without anesthesia or pain meds.

It was apparently used by both Western doctors and folk or religious practitioners to treat hysteria or psychosis. Doctors eventually realized this traumatic procedure wasn't an effective psychiatric treatment, and it died out in the 1900s. Modern forms of trepanation still exist today, but neurosurgeons do it to temporarily relieve pressure in the brain from swelling or bleeding.

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3. Cocaine

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Starting in 1860, cocaine was used as an anesthetic for pain, especially from tooth and gum diseases, but also to treat hay fever, alcoholism, and depression — Freud was known to prescribe it to his patients like candy. It was a pretty popular medicine until the early 1900s, when doctors realized it was incredibly addictive and led to the use of crack, cocaine's cheaper and less pure cousin — and so it was banned as an illegal drug.

4. Hemiglossectomy

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A hemiglossectomy is the removal of half or part of the tongue, which was done in the medieval era with crude instruments and no anesthesia. This traumatic surgery was believed to treat stuttering and other speech defects. Yes, practitioners thought cutting off half of the tongue would help speech issues.

The surgery declined in popularity by the 17th century because it was both ineffective and inhumane, but glossectomy surgeries are still sometimes used today to treat mouth cancer and other oral diseases.

5. Urine therapy

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Urine therapy or urotherapy derives from ancient Indian medicine, which promoted drinking urine and massaging it into the skin to treat stings, minor ailments, and even some cancers.

Practitioners believed urine was a filtrated and purified "gold of the blood," as opposed to a waste product from the body. It lasted as a folk remedy up until the 19th century, when people pretty much stopped using urine as a treatment (except for occasionally on jellyfish stings). Because drinking your own urine might be worse than whatever illness you're trying to cure.

6. Chloroform

Chloroform, the original roofie, was first used for anesthesia in 1831, and became the most popular anesthetic for surgeries and childbirth. Patients would sniff a chloroform-soaked rag to pass out for surgery, and doctors later designed a mask that delivered a steady dose of chloroform so patients remained unconscious throughout surgery.

In theory, this was great, because surgery before anesthesia was literally torture, but it came with many complications and a high fatality rate. Doctors stopped using chloroform in the 1950s when they discovered safer anesthetics such as nitrous oxide gas.

7. Emetics

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Emetics were used to induce vomiting, which was thought at the time to "evacuate" extra substances causing illness in the body and "restore" an internal balance. Emetics included low doses of toxic things like antimonious tartar, mercury, and copper sulfate, which pretty much just poisoned people until they threw up everything and emptied the digestive tract.

Emetics were taken to treat everything from depression to headaches and infections, but they died out in the 20th century because — big surprise — they often made people even more sick or just straight-up killed them.

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8. Leeches

Leeches have been used to draw blood for thousands of years, starting with the ancient Egyptians and lasting through the 19th century. It was an alternative method of bloodletting that didn't involve any incisions or invasive cutting. Doctors believed organ inflammation caused most illnesses and removing blood was the only cure, so they would place leeches on the part of the body where the organ was located (like the eyes, mouth, ears, vulva, or penis).

Some doctors would even tie a string on the leech like a leash so it could go inside the rectum, vagina, or mouth and draw blood without escaping. At the height of leeching's popularity in 19th-century Europe, doctors had "leecheries" or ponds where they bred thousands of Hirudo medicinalis, a unique species of nonaggressive leeches that were perfect for medical use. By the 20th century, leeching declined in popularity once people realized that bloodletting didn't really work and often made things worse — plus sticking leeches all over your face and in your penis sounds fucking awful.

9. Lobotomy

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A frontal lobotomy involves cutting or scraping away the prefrontal cortex of the brain. It became popular in the 1940s and was widely used in mental hospitals and institutions to treat patients with schizophrenia, psychosis, OCD, and other disorders. It was actually shown to improve symptoms in the majority of patients, but it was also associated with complications and some deaths.

The lobotomy fad ultimately ended in the 1950s when doctors realized that many patients thought to be cured actually became vegetative and dependent. Besides, the medical world quickly realized there were more effective and humane therapies for mental illness. Not to mention, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was published.

10. Soothing Syrups (narcotic cocktails)

In the late 1800s, pharmacists patented soothing syrups for teething and restless children that included ingredients like morphine, codeine, cannabis, chloroform, meth, and alcohol. The doses were low enough to stop pain from teething and high enough to knock kids out, so mothers often used the syrups to put their fussy babies to sleep.

Not surprisingly, many babies and toddlers ended up overdosing, going into comas, or dying. So these syrups, like the very popular Mrs. Winslow's, were removed from the market for good by the 1930s. Which is a good thing, because "sizzurp" pales in comparison to what the kids were sipping in 1900.

11. Heroin

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In 1898, Bayer began marketing straight-up heroin as a cough suppressant. Really. It soon became a "wonder drug" because it worked even better than codeine in treating respiratory diseases like whooping cough, which was an epidemic at the time.

However, most patients quickly became addicted and by 1910, heroin was discovered by morphine addicts and became a staple of the illicit drug market. Bayer eventually jumped ship and in 1931 heroin was completely banned in the United States.

12. Liquid mercury

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Ancient Persian, Greek, and Chinese societies used medical mercury as an ointment to treat skin diseases, and they even swallowed it to increase lifespan. The biggest use of mercury, however, was to treat the skin lesions from syphilis, which remained a treatment from the 15th century well into the 20th century.

By the 1920s, pharmacies sold unregulated liquid mercury in a variety of colors to treat everything from a toothache to depression. It died out around 1950 with both the discovery of penicillin to treat syphilis and the discovery of mercury poisoning, which harms most of the vital organs and can cause death. However, some mercurial compounds are still (safely) used in medicine today.

13. Arsenic

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Arsenic, a well-known poison, was a popular medical treatment that started with the ancient Chinese and lasted up until the 20th century. The element is found naturally in groundwater, but it's highly toxic in its inorganic form and can cause lesions, developmental defects, heart disease, or death. Still, it was used in low amounts to treat different cancers (such as prostate) and syphilis, and Victorian women even used it as a cosmetic.

It wasn't until the U.S. Army used arsenic compounds to develop chemical warfare agents that arsenic was regulated and removed from the public market. However, arsenic trioxide (white arsenic) is still used by oncologists to treat some forms of leukemia.

14. The Electrical Belt

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Although electrotherapy is a legitimate medical treatment, it was used by "quack" practitioners to sell sham treatments like the electric belt, or Pulvermacher chain, created in 1850.

The belt used a chain battery to deliver electric currents and stimulation to the abdomen, which was said to promote digestion and treat erectile dysfunction. By the mid-1900s, it was a very popular weight-loss treatment among women who were told it would slim their midsections. The belt was phased out as an actual medical treatment in the 1950s, but modern variations are still marketed today for six-pack abs even though there's 100 years of evidence to prove the belt is total BS.

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