A Brief History of Pain

Even as recently as the early 1900s, "some physicians used gold salts injected into limbs to treat arthritis," Meldrum said.

Magnetic Attraction

The American contribution to the history of pain relief is as colorful as a patchwork quilt.

Quilts from Appalachia incorporated images of medicinal plants in "medicine squares," said Cope. The quilts were then used by those suffering from pain or other ailments.

In the 1800s and early 1900s, as magnets and electricity became widely available, medical quacks were quick to exploit these exciting and mysterious forces for their purported healing properties.

"Both electricity and magnetism have been used for as long as people have been able to produce them," said Meldrum.

In addition to belts and trusses containing magnets, a range of balms and liniments said to contain magnetic properties were available to gullible sufferers.

Other commercial remedies contained varying quantities of opiates, alcohol or cocaine -- which probably made them effective at relieving pain temporarily, said Meldrum.

"Coca-Cola was originally sold as a cure for everything," said Warfield. "It contained cocaine. Remember, stuff wasn't regulated in those days."

Another popular approach to pain relief called for the preparation of a wet plaster made from hot mustard. The plaster was applied directly to the skin, or on a cloth that was then laid on the skin.

The heat from the mustard plaster worked on the principle of "counterstimulation," the idea that one kind of pain or sensation could cancel out another, more severe pain.

"There are scientific reasons we know about now that has shown why they worked," said Warfield.

A Breath of Relief

"The first new significant treatment for pain occurred in 1846 with the use of anesthesia for surgery," said Meldrum.

Prior to that, doctors and dentists used some bizarre techniques before operating.

An old Italian technique involved putting a wooden bowl over a patient's head, then hammering on the bowl until the patient passed out, according to Warfield.

"They used to hold kids over a gas stove so [the kids] would breathe gas until they lost consciousness," Warfield said.

"They would also choke people with carotid compression until they passed out," said Warfield. "In those days, the best surgeons were the fastest surgeons."

It took a British royal to popularize the concept of relieving the pain of childbirth, previously thought to be an unavoidable or necessary part of motherhood.

"Queen Victoria was really the first one to have anesthesia for childbirth -- she had chloroform," said Warfield. "She made it fashionable."

Treating the Whole Patient

In spite of a dazzling array of modern treatments for pain, some experts wonder if ancient and primitive cultures still have much to teach us about pain and human health.

"People now like to think of science and pain treatment as being very objective," said Cope.

"Now we're very rigid and almost literal," she said. "We just want a quick fix. The suffering and the emotional context -- that defines what the patient is actually experiencing."

The next frontier for pain relief, then, may lie in the past.

"Ancient people saw pain more accurately -- pain not only as a physical condition but as an emotional and a spiritual condition," she said. "They would work with the entire patient."

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