Part Five: – Electrifying and galvanizing against headaches. Don’t try this at home!
Medicine was finally conquered by the scientific method by the middle of the 19th century and experimental physiology was the preferred method of discovering and advancing new medical knowledge.
The function of the vasomotor nerves had been discovered, exactly mapped, rediscovered, observed and explained over a period starting in the 17th century. These are the nerves of the autonomic nervous system that control the diameter of blood vessels. Us modern day migraine sufferers have heard all about the part blood vessels can play in migraine pain.
Back then, new discoveries within science led to an interest in electronic medical treatment a craze that remained popular for several decades.
In 1870 Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836–1917) was the first woman to become a qualified physician in England following studying medicine in Paris. In her doctoral thesis, ‘Sur la migraine she advised that electricity, (as well as air and exercise) was the most effective treatment for migraine. She wrote:
‘There are reasons to suppose that in migraine, as well as in other cases of severe and recurrent pain, the central lesion consists of imperfect nutrition of nervous tissues. The immediate result of it is a too rapid discharge of electricity inherent to nervous molecules’.
The method of application seems to have been that a voltaic current was passed directly through the head or through the sympathetic ganglia in the neck.
British neurologist, Sir William Gowers (1845–1915) was not enthusiastic about electricity saying it was, ‘not often of service…the voltaic current passed through the head occasionally gives transient, but rarely permanent, relief’.
He very much doubted the value of repeated ‘galvanization’ .
Still, electric therapies (including the worryingly named electrified bath) caught on. Yep! You read those parenthesis correctly. The patient literally was seated in a bath and the water charged with electricity.
A.The hydroelectric bath was used as a potential cure for headache by Rudolf Lewandowski (Lewandowski, 1887).
B. The title page of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson’s thesis; she also advised electrical therapy (Garrett, 1870).
At the end of the century there was a lot written about migraine, including monongraphs by the German physician Paul Mobius (1853–1907) who, like Gowers, was critical about the effects of electricity. He reviewed physical treatments, including water therapy, massage and electrotherapy (galvanization, faradization of the head, the electrical bath) being quite clear on the effects:
‘There is no other way out, here as with the miracles of massage, it concerns suggestion. I have occasionally pointed to the fact that in mild migraine attacks, psychic influences are important. Therefore, it is obvious that in such type of attack, electric manipulations will bring ‘immediate well-being’, in particular if it is carried out by an appropriate personality’.
Despite these criticisms these methods continued for some considerable time, and our hearts go out to those 19th century human guinea pigs who braved those first experiments! However, we certainly wouldn’t recommend mixing your bath with electricity – there are far safer and up to date options available!
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