Special Report

7 Bizarre Medical Treatments Back in Use

3. Leeches and Bloodletting

For thousands of years, bloodletting was a practice of ancient medicine to balance the humours. It is thought to have been among the most common medical practices from the antiquity period through the late 1800s. The first documented uses were in ancient Egypt around 1000 BCE. In Hippocrates’ Greece, when dietary changes, exercise, sweating, and vomiting proved unhelpful, the body was frequently “re-balanced” through bleeding.

Various methods of bloodletting were used over time, usually involving small knives to score the skin or nick a vein. Leeches were first documented for this use in 800 BCE and were exceedingly popular in the early 1800s. In 1830s France, 35 million leeches were used per year.
Bloodletting was debunked as a cure-all as rigorous study showed that it had little positive impact on most diseases. Today, bloodletting is still in use only in the treatment of diseases where the body produces too many red blood cells (polycythemia vera) or where there is malfunction of iron metabolism (iron being the main ingredient of hemoglobin, which allows red blood cells to transport oxygen).

The use of leeches, too, has increased in the past couple of decades after it was discovered that the leeches’ saliva secretions contain several medicinal enzymes. In microsurgery and tissue reimplantation, leeches can help relieve blood congestion and allow for proper circulation. In addition, the anti-inflammatory and numbing agents are useful in the treatment of arthritis. As early as 1817 and as recently as 2014, numerous attempts have been made to replace leeches with blood-sucking mechanical devices. None appear to be as effective as leeches, however, which continue to be used to this day.

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4. Thalidomide

Developed in Germany in the 1950s, thalidomide was considered a cure-all. It was marketed as a treatment for respiratory infections, insomnia, cough, colds, headaches, nausea, and — most significantly — morning sickness. The company that developed the drug tried to get it approved in America, but the application was denied by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In 1957, thalidomide became an over-the-counter medicine in Germany. It was also licensed sold in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. It became one of the most successful prescription drugs in the history of medicine.

Doctors prescribed thalidomide to thousands of pregnant women for morning sickness until they realized children were being born with serious birth defects. It was estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 children were born with missing and severely malformed limbs, and roughly 50% of them died. The drug was withdrawn from the market in Germany, and eventually pulled from the rest of the countries in which it was licensed.

In 1991, researchers found that the drug had a significant impact on the regulation of the immune system. Seven years later, the FDA approved the drug for the treatment of leprosy, and since that time it and multiple derivatives have been used effectively on blood cancers and other immune system disorders.

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