5 Medical Treatments Deadlier Than the U.S. Health-Care System

I’m gonna go ahead and prescribe you some malaria for that syphilis
5 Medical Treatments Deadlier Than the U.S. Health-Care System

Trusting your doctor is generally the correct choice in modern times. Sure, getting a second opinion if it’s particularly important might be a smart move. Deciding their years of medical education and residency were actually all wrong and instead trusting uncertified and unearned advice from someone who doesn’t know your hair color much less your personal issues, less so. Despite the beliefs of Dr. Leo Spaceman, medicine is indeed a science, and one that’s got a whole lot of evidence backing it up.

Now, if we weren’t living in the year 2023, and were somehow sent through time back to darker ages, a doctor’s trip might not be in the interest of your health. Medical procedures and knowledge in centuries and millennia past were, let’s say, still firmly in the experimental stage. Staying home and trying to gut out a serious injury, might have been the preferred course of action back then, and not just because of a lack of health insurance. It all depended on which you preferred: betting your life on a coin-flip, or a hole drilled in your head.

Here are five old-timey medical procedures that are now highly inadvisable…


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Never good when your doctor looks like Beavis and/or Butt-Head.

Polycythemia vera is a rare blood cancer, in which your body produces too many red blood cells. This can cause unnaturally thick blood, which obviously raises the risk of clotting, stroke or heart attack. Hemochromatosis is a more common, but less serious condition where you retain too much iron in your blood, which can cause things like fatigue and eventually heart or liver failure. If you suffer from either of these, they might be treated with phlebotomy, a medical term for bloodletting.

If you don’t suffer from either of these diagnoses, it’s overwhelmingly likely that you do not need less blood in your body. This is a remarkably recent conclusion, though, since doctors for thousands of years subscribed to the idea of “humours” in the body that needed to be kept in balance. For ancient doctors, bloodletting was practically option A, whether through human action or leech application. Draining your veins was their version of “take a Tylenol and call me in the morning.” For a good while, it was even a service provided by barbers, who also performed minor surgeries back in the day.


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And people are scared of needles.

If the idea of letting some doctor of the past pop a hole in your arm doesn’t sound pleasant, consider letting them do the same to your skull. Drilling a hole in the skull is known as “trepanning,” and it’s believed that it’s the earliest evidence of human surgery. Now, some disciplines have antiquated methods that are still admired for their craftsmanship and effectiveness, in everything from still-standing architectural wonders to shaker furniture.

Surgery is not one of those disciplines. Is there a chance that trepanning might be used today? Possibly, in very specific situations like a subdural hematoma. We can pretty safely guess that, given that they didn’t know what the fuck that was, the perforated skulls of people as far back as the Neolithic period were much less necessary. They might have been thinking less about intracranial pressure and more about cutting an escape hatch for brain demons, like they were popping open a screen door to shoo out a housefly.



Dr. Mo Squito, here to cure your horrific sexual disease.

So, you’ve got syphilis. Bummer! If you happened to pick it up before the discovery of penicillin, bummer times about 20. You’re staring down a battery of unpleasantness as the disease develops, including all sorts of mental issues as those microscopic spirals snack away on important bits of your brain. One thing outside of penicillin that can effectively wipe out syphilis, though, is high temperatures.

Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated than a quick shvitz in a local sauna. Specifically, what was needed was a very high internal temperature, in the form of a dangerously high fever. Exactly the kind of thing that malaria gives you. So, with no other cure in sight, some syphilis patients were offered the fire as a cure to the frying pan, being purposely infected with malaria in the hopes that it would kill off the syphilis and, if they were lucky, not the host along with it.

Mercury Medicine

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The original “little blue pill”

Staying on syphilis, it was long a specter that threatened the population, given its gloomy prognosis and spread aided by people’s base desire to fuck each other when possible. Before malaria made its questionable debut, there was another highly risky medical treatment starting with M: mercury treatments. We’re rightfully pretty leery of contact with mercury these days, given that the most common follow-up word found after it is “poisoning” (or maybe “in retrograde” depending on who you follow on Instagram).

Mercury, also known as quicksilver, was used in all sorts of forms throughout history to treat a variety of diseases, and was a key ingredient in Salvarsan (along with arsenic), a syphilis treatment introduced in 1910. Abraham Lincoln was prescribed mercury pills to treat his mental illness, though to his credit he seemed to realize it seemed to be hurting more than helping and phased it out. Ancient Emperor Qin Shi Huang wasn’t so lucky, and he died at the age of 49 from what we now know to be mercury poisoning, after imbibing heaping helpings of mercury, believing them to be, ironically enough, the key to immortality.

Tapeworm Diet

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A diet and a pet all in one!

Obesity is a hot medical topic now and in the past, not to mention its unhealthy coupling with self-image and what’s seen as the path to a healthy love life. Now, back in Victorian times, it’s unlikely women were desperately trying to shed pounds to avoid type-two diabetes, and more likely trying to decrease their corset’s workload. The preferred body shape of the era was “Pixar mom” and that’s hard to achieve with any sort of natural body fat percentage or bone structure. So, the women took corsets to the skeleton, and even more dangerously, tapeworms to the stomach. The actual popularity of willingly eating for two is a subject of debate, but the interest was undeniably very real.

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