Science and medicine aren’t static. This means that as research continues and scientists learn more about what causes illnesses and how to effectively treat them, ideas and procedures change. This is good. This is progress. We want scientific and medical advancement to keep us as healthy as possible and to manage our diseases and injuries.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the growing distrust of scientific and medical experts. There were always some people who didn’t trust doctors and other healthcare professionals, but this number grew over the years. This mistrust has led to misinformation and disinformation, affecting the medical care we get, or don’t.
Learn about some of the procedures and medical thinking of the past that have changed or been debunked as scientists learned more.
Mercury as a cure
Most people today probably only know of mercury as the silver substance that we used to see in thermometers. If the thermometer broke, the mercury would fall out and form tiny balls that were interesting to watch — and play with. We now know that mercury is hazardous and the World Health Organization (WHO) considers mercury “as one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern.”
But not all that long ago, doctors used this naturally occurring substance to help “treat” issues like parasites, syphilis, and inflammation, to name a few. We now know that mercury is a neurotoxin (poison to the nerve tissue) and should not be used as a treatment.
Gum lancing for teething babies
Teething can be hard on babies and their parents. Doctors and parents have been trying to find ways to help relieve the gum pain for it seems like forever. For some, this meant gum lancing. Doctors and dentists in the 18th century would lance a baby’s gums before, during, and after teething, believing this would reduce the discomfort. Unfortunately, making an opening in the gum gave bacteria a perfect entry, likely causing many infections – and deaths.
Patients diagnosed with the plague, smallpox, epilepsy, pneumonia, and other disorders were frequently treated by bloodletting. Doctors would cause their patients to bleed, usually with a nick in the vein or even an artery, believing this would cure them. It was also believed that bloodletting cured people of evil spirits. Leeches were used too.
Leeches are also still used in some cases, such as finger reattachment after a traumatic amputation. Leeches are placed on the reattached finger to remove blood buildup in the tissues as they heal after surgery. The leeches actually improve blood flow by releasing a chemical (enzyme) that prevents clot formation and thus improves blood flow to the newly attached finger.
Cigarettes to relieve asthma
It wasn’t all that long ago that tobacco companies promoted their cigarettes as healthy, even using doctors to sell their products. Ads claimed that cigarettes helped people with respiratory problems. Of course, we know that this isn’t true. In fact, it’s the opposite. Smoking tobacco is associated with cancer, heart disease, stroke, and other conditions. Some people still smoke, but at least they don’t do it to cure a health issue.
Just a few examples
These are just a few examples of how thinking changes in medicine and science. The original thinking made sense back then, and because doctors wanted to help their patients, they tried different techniques. With the benefit of time and hindsight, we can see that those treatments weren’t helpful at all. In many cases, were harmful. But it is only through continued research and sharing this research we can learn what works and what doesn’t.
So the next time you read or hear a change in how something is treated, think about the research that brought the new information. For example, when COVID-19 first started spreading, there was much discussion about whether we should wear masks. As the researchers got more information, they refined their mask recommendations. This wasn’t because they were changing their minds. It was because they learned more about the virus and how to protect ourselves.
We want research. We want science and medicine to evolve. That’s how we progress and we are here to help you Decipher Your Health.
The information in this blog is provided as an information and educational resource only. It is not to be used or relied upon for diagnostic or treatment purposes.
The blog does not represent or guarantee that its information is applicable to a specific patient’s care or treatment. The educational content in this blog is not to be interpreted as medical advice from any of the authors or contributors. It is not to be used as a substitute for treatment or advice from a practicing physician or other healthcare professional.