Bloodletting in the 20th Century


1802 Bloodletting Set – Wikipedia

I’ve always thought of bloodletting, also known as phlebotomy or venesection, as a practice that had died out by the end of the 19th century. However, a discussion with my mother last week opened my eyes a bit. We were discussing her own mother’s chronic illness and eventual death at the age of  61 in 1957, the year I was born. It turns out that she had severe hypertension that was treated by a local physician who paid weekly visits and bled her. Apparently, on those days through the late 40s and early 50s when she was still at school and living at home, my mother had to leave school early and hold the basin while the blood trickled from her mother’s arm.

This really surprised me. I had absolutely no idea that bloodletting had been used so recently, and especially in a suburb of Boston MA. So, I did a little digging into bloodletting and hypertension. Apparently, the first anti-hypertensive drug was not developed until 1953, and had sufficient side effects that meant compliance was low.

The first group of medication to control hypertension was associated with adverse effects so significant that relatively few patients complied with the prescribed medication, which included methyldopa, reserpine, pentaquine, hydralazine, and guanethidine. Asymptomatic hypertensive patients who felt quite healthy were not likely to continue taking medications that caused them to feel dizzy on standing up, be sedated, be impotent, or have blurred vision, dry mouth, or constipation. Better medications had to be developed.

At about the same time, chlorothiazide, a relatively safe but effective diuretic, was derived from the antibacterial sulphonamides. Later still beta-blockers, angiotensin antagonists, angiotensin receptor inhibitors, and calcium channel blockers came onto the scene.

It is difficult enough to imagine that the practice of bloodletting lasted past the middle of the 20th century, but perhaps more surprising to discover that it is still in use today. Although its uses have become very specific and studied.

Research has shown that bloodletting could improve cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose levels for people suffering from metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is a term used to describe the list of medical problems facing people who are obese, such as hypertension, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance. People with this condition are at risk for clots and strokes. Bloodletting thins down the patient’s blood, helping to prevent these problems.

Perhaps the most common use for modern bloodletting is a hereditary iron-overload condition known as haemochromatosis. As iron builds in the patient’s blood, it can have a negative impact on various areas of the body, including the heart and the joints. This can eventually lead to disease and organ failure. Bloodletting, now commonly referred to as a “blood donation”, is applied as the main treatment for haemochromatosis, with patients having their blood taken on at least an annual basis for life.

Then come the leeches used for bloodletting since as least 500 BC when it was described in the Sushruta Samhita. Modern day leech therapy is limited to only a few specific instances

Medicinal leech therapy made an international comeback in the 1970s in microsurgery, used to stimulate circulation to salvage skin grafts and other tissue threatened by postoperative venous congestion, particularly in finger reattachment and reconstructive surgery of the ear, nose, lip, and eyelid.

As with any medical practice, there are those who are solidly stuck in the past. One of the principle commonalities among the alt-med beliefs is the concept of detoxification. It is hardly a leap to jump from this belief to removing some of this toxic blood as a means of detox, and what better way to do that than with leeches.

The Silesian Holistic Center of New York promises to cure whatever ails you with leeches. The site claims about 530 conditions/diseases that can be treated with leeches, including:

localized pain associated with particular organ dysfunctions, infections, cysts, high blood pressure, arthritis, eye problems, hearing problems, migraine, vertigo, hemorrhoids, spider veins, varicose veins, prostate problems, spine problems, sciatic nerve problems, sexual dysfunctions, infertility, diabetes, sinuses, asthma, liver problems, allergies, kidneys problems, heart problems, joint problems, intestinal problems, bladder problems, PMS, blood clots and thrombosis, skin problems.

We are all well aware of the imaginary meridian lines of qi used by acupuncturists. Apparently, there are leech lines as well.

A more specific, higher level of treatment involves placement of leeches at designated trigger points, which are based on leech therapy body maps. These maps have been created by leech researchers and scientists over the last hundred years of scientific testing. When stimulated by leeches, the trigger points can produce healing effects and positive changes in different organs and biological systems. For example, the application of leeches to the shoulder trigger point is reported to dramatically ameliorate migraine pain. Most of the trigger points are nerve, lymph, and cardiovascular system stimulus points.

And then the detox:

  • Elimination of metabolic wastes and other toxins – returning the body to its original quality of health status.
  • Organs cleansed – each individual organ undergoes purification, in this way “hitting the reset button” to bring all organs and systems back into one overall, transcendent, synergistic system – THE BODY.
  • Blood restructured and restored on the molecular level – achieving full functioning of the blood’s components and optimal management of the body at its prime condition.
  • Viscosity levels of blood and other fluids restored – eliminating stagnancy in circulatory systems and achieving proper fuels/lubricants/transmitters fluid combination for the full functioning of the body.
  • Proper alkaline/acidic (ph) balance maintained – the single most important factor in proper body functioning.
  • Blood and lymph circulation corrected to the proper systemic-related circulation – restoring the systems that feeds and detoxifies each individual cell of the body, allowing it to be clean and fully nourished again, and in this way restoring the body to a like-new, pristine condition, and returning it to perfect health.
  • Veins, arteries, and lymphatic vessels cleansed and strengthened – THE basic condition of good health.

As a result of the above, the body will begin to self-heal. According to reports, most mild illnesses will cease to exist, as our natural organic system of rejuvenation works diligently to restore the body’s health.

No less bizarre than leech detoxification is the practice of Hijama, or wet-cupping. Cupping

is the use of localized suction on the skin in the belief that it promotes healing. The suction can be created by heat and/or mechanical devices, and leaves tell-tale large bruises on the patient. Hijama is even more potent because it involves bloodletting within the cup.

Hijama can be performed almost anywhere on the body, often at the site of an ache or pain in order to ease or alleviate it. A more conservative approach warns against over use of cupping and suggests only that six optimal points on the body are all that is required to “clean” the entire cardiovascular system.

That’s what we all need, a clean cardiovascualr system. Perhaps if I had met a hijama expert 3 years ago, I may have avoided the stainless steel stents that now keep my coronary arteries open. But Hijama has even more power than simply curing physical problems.

Hijama is considered a form of energy medicine because it has been claimed to unclog the meridians in the body, and is viewed by some practitioners as a cure that can alleviate black magic and possession.

Finally an admission that alt-med is indistinguishable from magic.

In the late 1940s, my grandmother’s doctor had very few tools at his disposal to treat her hypertension and delay her eventual death. He used a method that was tied directly to the system at risk and he did the best he could with the knowledge available at that time. Within 10 years, modern medical practice had moved beyond the practice and focused on using treatments that empirically improved their patients’ conditions. Today, no physician in the western world would consider venesection as a viable treatment for hypertension or most other conditions.

On the other hand, alt-med practitioners cling to ancient practices that have no basis our modern understanding of biology, physics, or chemistry.

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