Surgery: Crude, blunt and horribly painful
But there were some great successes. Archeologists in England found the skull of a peasant man from about 1100 who had been struck in the head by a heavy, blunt object. Close examination shows the man had been given life-saving surgery called trepanning, where a hole was drilled and a section of the skull was lifted, allowing smashed bone segments to be removed. The surgery alleviated pressure on the brain and the man recovered. We can only guess how painful it must have been!
Dwale: A crude anesthetic that could cause death in itself
The Middle English word used to describe an anesthetic potion was "dwale" (pronounced dwaluh).
The hemlock juice alone could easily have caused death. While the anesthetic might induce a profound sleep, allowing a surgery to take place, it might be so strong that the patient would stop breathing.
Paracelsus, a medieval Swiss physician, was the first to use ether for its anesthetic qualities. Ether did not gain wide acceptance and its use declined. It was rediscovered in America some 300 years later. Paracelsus also used laudanum, a tincture of opium, to alleviate pain.
Spells: Pagan rituals and religious penance as a form of cure
"When [the healer] approaches the house where the sick person lies, if [the healer] finds a stone lying nearby, [he turns] the stone over and looks in the place where the stone was lying [to see] if there anything living under it, and if [the healer] finds there a worm or a fly or an ant or anything that moves, they [the healer] avers that the sick person will recover." (From The Corrector & Physician).
Patients who had contracted the bubonic plague were told to perform penance – the practice of confessing one's sins, then performing a religious devotion prescribed by a priest – a common "treatment." They were told they might be spared death if they correctly confessed their sins.
Eye Cataract Surgery: Painful procedure that rarely saved patients' sight
Once Islamic medicine became more widely followed in medieval Europe, cataract surgery improved. The syringe was used for the extraction of cataracts by suction. A hollow metallic hypodermic syringe was inserted through the white part of the eye and successfully extracted the cataracts through suction.
Blocked Bladders: Metallic catheters inserted into the bladder
Here is a description of the treatment of kidney stones: "If there is a stone in the bladder make sure of it as follows: have a strong person sit on a bench, his feet on a stool; the patient sits on his lap, legs bound to his neck with a bandage, or steadied on the shoulders of the assistants. The physician stands before the patient and inserts two fingers of his right hand into the anus, pressing with his left fist over the patient's pubes. With his fingers engaging the bladder from above, let him work over all of it. If he finds a hard, firm pellet it is a stone in the bladder... If you want to extract the stone, precede it with light diet and fasting for two days beforehand. On the third day, ... locate the stone, bring it to the neck of the bladder; there, at the entrance, with two fingers above the anus incise lengthwise with an instrument and extract the stone."
Surgeons on the Battlefield: Pulling of arrows was a nasty business
The heads of war arrows weren't necessarily glued onto the shafts, but attached with warm beeswax. After the wax set, they could be handled normally, but once shot into something if the shaft was pulled, the head would come off inside the body.
One answer was the arrow spoon, based on a design by an Arab physician, named Albucasis. The spoon is inserted into the wound and attaches itself around the arrowhead to be drawn from a wound without causing further damage as the barbs rip out.
Wounds such as these were also treated with cautery, where red hot irons were applied to the wound so that the tissue and veins sealed over, preventing blood loss and infection. Cautery was especially used in amputations.
A famous illustration for surgeons was called, "The Wound Man," which showed the various kinds of wounds a battlefield surgeon might expect to see.
Bloodletting: A cure-all for almost any ailment
In leeching, the physician attached a leech, a blood-sucking worm, to the patient, probably on that part of the body most severely affected by the patient's condition. The worms would suck off a quantity of blood before falling off.
Venesection was the direct opening of a vein, generally on the inside of the arm, for the draining of a substantial quantity of blood. The tool used for venesection was the fleam, a narrow half-inch long blade, which penetrates the vein, and leaves a small wound. The blood ran into a bowl, which was used to measure the amount of blood taken.
Monks in various monasteries had regular bloodletting treatments – whether they were sick or not – as a means of keeping good health. They had to be excused from regular duties for several days while they recovered.
Childbirth: Women told to prepare for their death
Midwives were important to the Church due to their role in emergency baptisms and were regulated by Roman Catholic law. A popular medieval saying was, "The better the witch; the better the midwife"; to guard against witchcraft, the Church required midwives to be licensed by a bishop and swear an oath not to use magic when assisting women through labour.
In situations where a baby's abnormal birth position slowed its delivery, the birth attendant turned the infant inutero or shook the bed to attempt to reposition the fetus externally. A dead baby who failed to be delivered would be dismembered in the womb with sharp instruments and removed with a "squeezer." A retained placenta was delivered by means of counterweights, which pulled it out by force.
Clysters: A medieval method of injecting medicines into the anus
The most common fluid used was lukewarm water, though occasionally medical concoctions, such as thinned boar's bile or vinegar, were used.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, the medieval clyster was replaced by the more common bulb syringe. In France, the treatment became quite fashionable. King Louis XIV had over 2,000 enemas during his reign, sometimes holding court while the ceremony progressed.
Hemorrhoids: Agony of the anus treated with hot irons
In more extreme cases of hemorrhoids, medieval physicians used their cautery irons to treat the problem. Others believed that simply pulling them out with their fingernails was a solution, a solution that the Greek physician, Hippocrates suggested.
The 12th century Jewish physician Moses Maimonides wrote a seven-chapter treatise on hemorrhoids and disagreed with the use of surgery, instead prescribing the most common treatment used to this day: the sitz bath.