Target Health Blog

Pain Management in Ancient Cultures


Photo of Malapterurus electricus (electric catfish) at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco Photo credit: by Stan Shebs, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The first cases of electroanalgesia were documented by Greek scholars, Plutarch and Socrates, who noticed numbing effects of standing in pools of water on a beach that contained electric fish. The Chinese practice of acupuncture, dating back to 3000 BCE, also utilizes the properties of electroanalgesia by stimulating specific nerves to produce electrical signals which produce pleasurable responses in the brain. Another ancient analgesic method, aging back to 5000 BCE in Sumer, is to use natural minerals, vitamins, and herbs, usually in a mixture with other natural products.

The electric catfish of the Nile was well known to the ancient Egyptians. The Egyptians reputedly used the electric shock from them when treating arthritis pain. They would use only smaller fish, as a large fish may generate an electric shock from 300 to 400 volts. The Egyptians depicted the fish in their mural paintings and elsewhere; the first known depiction of an electric catfish is on a slate palette of the predynastic Egyptian ruler Narmer about 3100 BCE. It was suitably called “angry catfish“ in ancient Egyptian. The shock of these catfish is used to stun prey and in defense. It is not known to be fatal to humans, but large electric catfish can stun an adult person. In small electric catfish the generated current is far less and only feels like a tingle to humans.

The ancient Egyptians harvested the waters of the Nile River in search of what they called “Thunder of the Nile“. The “Thunder of the Nile“ is an electric fish that comes in various species. One of these species is the electric catfish. The Egyptians used it as a chronic pain treatment method and to help alleviate other types of acute pain. The Egyptians used the electric catfish to literally zap and shock people who complained of arthritic pain. This was perhaps the first natural arthritis pain relief method. The large electric catfish are like a destructive weapon! They can deliver shocks that resemble those of a 350 volts Taser gun. One zap of a Taser gun is 3 times more potent than the voltage of an American wall socket. The ancient Egyptians treated the catfish with high importance. They mummified the electric catfish and placed them in tombs of their deceased loved ones, so that the healing catfish can be taken with the deceased to the afterlife.

The Torpedo Fish is a species of electric ray, which is another type of fish with lightning powers. The electric ray has 544 species including the torpedo. The Ancient Egyptians used the torpedo to treat epilepsy. In its natural habitat, the fish lies partly buried on sand and delivers shocks to its prey. The shock from the fish resembles electricity shocks and can range from 8 volts to 220 volts. The torpedo also uses its jolts to defend itself from predators, and to stun its prey in order to capture it.

The Greeks also considered the torpedo as a magical fish and used its electrogenic properties as a numbing agent on women who experienced labor pains. Ancient Romans treated headache patients with jolts emitting from a torpedo. This is similar to electrotherapy pain relief treatments in today's times. The Romans and the Greeks also used this method to treat gout, chronic headaches, and diseases of the spleen. An advocate of this torpedo jolting remedy was Scribonius Largus, the court physician to first century Roman Emperor Claudius. This is how he explained ho w this method works:

“To immediately remove and permanently cure a headache, however long-lasting and intolerable, a live black torpedo is put on the place which is in pain until the pain ceases and the part grows numb.“

The Inca of Peru discovered the coca leaf around 1300 BCE. When chewed and brewed for tea, coca leaves can be beneficial to human health including numbing aches and pains. In modern Peru, the coca leaves are made into tea that helps people tolerate high elevations. This is why it's popular with tourists at Machu Picchu (11,152 feet) and Cusco (7,972 feet). However, when used in its commercial cocaine form, it can wreak havoc on the body. People can become addicted to cocaine and suffer from narrowing of the blood vessels, headaches, seizures, abnormal heart rhythms, strokes and even heart attacks.

1885, Spain introduced a cocaine filled drink called “Kola-Coca“. A year later in 1886, a U.S. based company introduced its own version of the popular drink. The Coca-Cola drink was launched in the U.S. as a “medicinal“ beverage. At that time, Coca-Cola included extracts from coca leaves at a whopping 5 ounces (10 tablespoons) of cocaine per gallon. It also included kola nuts for the strong caffeine effects. In 1891, the cocaine amount in the Coca-Cola drink was reduced to 1/10th of the original amount. In 1903 it was completely removed from the formula. In 1953, Coca-Cola moved into the Spanish market and bought the rights to the Spanish drink Kola-Coca. It allowed the Spanish company to continue operating, but only to produce alcoholic beverages.

Most poppy plants contain no opium at all. Only the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) can be used to harvest opium. This method of extraction of opium was the earliest version of producing the drug morphine. Just as the Inca were discovering the magical qualities of the coca leaf around 3400 BCE, the Egyptians were extracting opium from the beautiful poppy plant and making it the focus of their pain treatment method. The Egyptians harvested the milky fluid from the plant and used it to produce opium. The ancient Egyptians prescribed it for nerve relaxation, pain management and to help people fall asleep. Because the Egyptians were fond of flowers, they used poppy plants as gifts and offerings and placed opium artifacts in the tombs of their dead Pharaohs. The Egyptians also used opium as a euphoric substance. However, it is not clear at this time whether they were aware of its addictive effects. After it became popular in Egypt, opium's analgesic and calming effects spread to other regions of the world such as Rome, Greece, Persia (modern day Iran), India, and China.

The recreation use of opium in China began in the 1400's. Opium use continued throughout the years and was considered a luxury item in China. It became more widely available in 1770 right after Britain conquered the colonies of India and Burma. Britain needed to fund its two new territories. After years of various groups randomly smuggling opium from Britain to China, the British East India Company opened a direct opium trade market with China. Opium became even more popular in China. It was mixed with tobacco for smoking purposes. Smoked opium is far more potent than the oral form due to the magnification of its addictive nature. The new trade practices created a new class of drug addicts. Women, men, old people, young people, rich people, and poor people were all smoking opium. The excess use of opium, created addicts who were constantly in pain, unless they were using the drug. The excessive availability and taxation of opium in China caused The First Opium War of 1839-1842. The Chinese revolted against Britain, rejected the legalization and taxation of opium and destroyed newly arrived opium shipments. This was the first historically documented “War on Drugs“. The Chinese wanted to revolt against the new opium legalization and taxation orders. However, the British Royal Navy responded with heavy duty gunnery power and forced the Qing Dynasty to sign a treaty three years later granting extra powers to Britain. Addiction became rampant in China. The First Opium War ended and the Second Opium War of 1856-1860 started.

The use of opium continued until the Chinese Revolution of 1949, ending the country's civil war. This is when Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-Tung declared the creation of The People's Republic of China (PRC). Chairman Mao vowed to end the opium addiction among his people. By 1956 the People's Republic of China had completely eradicated the opium problem that had severely plagued the country for almost 200 years.

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