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Physical methods

Mechanical leech, London, England, 1850-1855

Mechanical leech, London, England, 1850-1855

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Drugs have a long history as an important element of medical treatment, but there is a large variety of other treatments. In particular, there are many kinds of physical methods. Surgery is probably the most obvious example, and blood-letting was a standard resort of physicians and barber-surgeons for thousands of years.


But there are other methods as well. Acupuncture and moxibustion, for instance, have been central to the practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine for millennia. They have spread across the world, being adopted in Europe from the early 1800s. Many medical traditions share the use of exercise and massage as forms of treatment or prevention.

A combined physical and drug treatment

Physical methods were an integral part of Galenic and Unani medicine, which combined drug treatments and diets with the use of blood-letting, massage and exercise. Some of the measures prescribed, such as bathing and enemas, combine physical and pharmaceutical aspects.

The influence of fashion and society on treatment

In the 1700s many new methods emerged with scientific developments in Europe: electrotherapy, for instance, applied new knowledge about electricity to medicine. But fashion and social developments could be equally influential: in Britain during the 1800s, hydrotherapy became a popular treatment among the wealthy with the rise of famous spas such as Bath.

The influence of Greek art on body image in the 1800s

A fashion for the culture of ancient Greece in the 1800s led people to admire Greek art - especially Greek bodies. The muscular bodies of athletes, heroes and gods depicted in ancient sculptures were considered to be the ideal form, which people set out to try and achieve for themselves. Pioneers of gymnastics and body building such as the Swede Pehr Henrik Ling, the German Eugen Sandow and the American Charles Atlas developed systems of exercise which they claimed would restore health as well as build muscles.

Physical treatments for people with mental illness


But physical methods were applied not only to physical symptoms. In Britain and in mainland Europe, some of the most radical physical treatments were applied to cases of mental illness. Until the mid-1800s doctors recommended physical treatments for mental illness ranging from cold showers to rotating chairs and swings.

Avoiding medical drugs in the 1800s

In the 1800s some practitioners became very sceptical of the use of drugs in general. Practitioners argued that if alcohol was sinful and bad for human health, then perhaps medical drugs were no better. Chiropractic and osteopathy both developed as systems using physical manipulation and avoiding the use of drugs. Both systems now exist in today's medical marketplace as alternative treatments.

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Related links

External links:


H J Cook, ’Physical methods’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 939-960

M Duke, The Development of Medical Techniques and Treatments. From Leeches to Heart Surgery (Madison, Conn.: International Universities Press 1991)

N Gevitz, ‘Unorthodox medical theories’, in W F Bynum and R Porter (eds), Companion Encyclopedia of the History of Medicine, 1 (London: Routledge, 1993), pp 603-633

J R Johnson, A Treatise on the Medicinal Leech; Including its Medical and Natural History, With a Description of its Anatomical Structure; Also Remarks Upon the Diseases, Preservation and Management of Leeches (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1816)

R T Sawyer, Leech Biology and Behaviour (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986)

I Whitaker, J. Rao , D. Izadi , P. Butler, ‘Hirudo medicinalis: ancient origins of, and trends in the use of medicinal leeches throughout history’, British Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, 42/2 (2004), pp 133-137


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