The Middle Ages (800-1500) The next eight centuries saw few advances in headache treatment. Bizarre remedies were still widely used:
“The bones from the head of the vulture, wrapped in deerskin, will cure any headache; its brain, mixed with the very best of oil and put up the nose, will expel all ailments of the head.” – Incipit Epistula Vulturus, 800 AD
Pain-relieving medicines were first introduced in the 13th century, though these remedies bear no resemblance to the painkillers of today.
Italian monks placed cloths soaked in vinegar and opium on a sufferer’s head. The vinegar may have helped absorb small quantities of opium through the skin.
In the Americas, the Incas recognized the analgesic and anaesthetic properties of cocaine. They treated headache by dripping juice from coca leaves into an incision in a sufferer’s scalp.
The Renaissance (1600–1799) 17th century master clinician, Thomas Willis, made a tremendous breakthrough in understanding by proposing that migraine was caused by swollen blood vessels in the head. His “vascular theory” became widely accepted within the medical community, and formed the basis of much 20th century drug development.
This new theory finally eliminated the dangerous practice of trepanation. Blood letting, purging and applying head poultices were still common, but with a different objective—to relieve excess blood flow around the brain.
To learn more about medical history, visit the WWW Virtual Library for the History of Science, Technology & Medicine.