A Brief History of Pain
May 8, 2005 — -- The Greek goddess of revenge, Poine, was sent to punish the mortal fools who had angered the gods. Poine also gave us our word "pain," a fact not lost on people who suffer from bodily torment so brutal it feels like divine vengeance.
Many ancient cultures believed pain and disease were punishment for human folly. They tried to appease angry gods with rituals like votive offerings and scapegoats, sacrificial animals that carried the sins of people out into the wilderness.
"Magic and ritual were very common in ancient cultures," said Dr. Doris K. Cope, director of the Pain Medicine Division at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
"Primitive man understood pain when it was visible, like a cut or scrape, but didn't understand it as well when it was internal," she said.
In some cultures, rattles, gongs and other devices were believed to frighten painful devils out of a person's body. Amerindian healers sucked on pain pipes held against a person's skin to "pull" out pain or illness.
Many ancient doctors apparently figured their patients needed a hole in the head. Hundreds of skulls with small holes that have partially healed over have been found worldwide, but especially in Incan archaeological sites in South America.
"A lot of cultures would cut holes to let the pain out," Cope said. Even Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician considered the father of Western medicine, wrote about the practice, called trepanation.
Hippocrates also heard about the pain-relieving benefits of willow bark and leaves from earlier cultures, and he prescribed chewing willow leaves to women in childbirth.
His prescription was not without merit -- willow trees, members of the plant genus Salix, contain a form of salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin.
Other medical practices from the ancient world have been updated for use by modern physicians.
"The Egyptians used to take electric eels out of the Nile and lay them over the wounds of patients," said Dr. Carol A. Warfield, professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School.