In my ongoing quest for knowledge, I did a little research on the practice of bloodletting, and found some interesting bits of information.
I have always thought that this practice was a foolish way of treating illnesses, so I wanted to know why it was believed in and practiced for centuries. One of the reasons correlates the 4 humors with the 4 elements, blood – air, phlegm – water, black bile – earth, yellow bile – fire. If the elements are out of alignment, then there needs to be a balance, therefore the theory was believed that if there was an excess of one of the humors, causing an off balance, they needed to be brought back into alignment to cure the body.
Another justification was based upon a woman’s menstrual cycle. The belief was that the woman bled to purge her body, so to bring the body back into alignment. Therefore, the releasing of blood was thought to be a healing process. It was also believed that the blood just sat in the body, not circulating, therefore it would stagnate and cause illness. By bloodletting, it allowed fresh blood to enter the area, making the person healthier. Different areas of the body were believed to contain the blood for certain organs, such as releasing blood from the right hand would aid in healing liver problems, while blood from the left hand would aid the spleen. And the more severe the illness, the more blood had to be let.
It was interesting to note that, while he acknowledged the practice, Hippocrates preferred dietary techniques over bloodletting. He felt that exercise, sweating, reduced food intake, and vomiting would do more in healing the person than bloodletting.
It was Galen who first discovered that the arteries, which had been believed to contain air, actually carried blood, making the quantity of blood in the body greater than had been believed previously. Therefore, if it were believed you had an excess of blood before this discovery, afterward, you REALLY had an excess of blood.
It was even believed that a specific day of the week would be beneficial to certain illnesses. There were charts made showing the specific bleeding sights on the body, and how they aligned with the planets and zodiacs to be more effective in healing a person.
Leeches were also commonly used, usually left in place until they had drained enough blood to cause fainting.
Some of the instruments used were horrifying. One such instrument was used for scarification. It was a metal box containing multiple blades, mechanically operated to puncture the skin. It is nasty looking.
Very few diseases were not on the list of supposedly curable by bloodletting or leeches. Everything from acne to diabetes, cancer to indigestion. My favorite is scurvy. A disease which is caused from a deficiency in the blood, not having enough vitamin C, is supposedly cured by draining blood from your body. Yep, I can believe that…NOT!
Even though, by the middle of the 19th century, doctors had proven that bloodletting was not a cure all, many doctors refused to change their ways and embrace more modern methods of healing. Bloodletting was still common in the early 1900’s.
For some treatments, the patient was sent to a barber for bloodletting. Interesting was to learn what the barber pole actually meant. The red was for blood drawn from the body. White was for the use of a tourniquet. And the pole itself represented the stick that the patient held in their hand, squeezing it to assist in dilating the veins. For the poles I have seen with a blue stripe, I am afraid to ask what it represents (haha).
Well, that is a brief study of some of the beliefs behind bloodletting. I am so glad this is no longer a practice.