How long have migraines been around? Contrary to the beliefs of many, migraines are not a new disease, only a newly-named. In fact, based on the symptoms, it appears that migraines are among the oldest diseases known to mankind.
Conditions that have been linked to migraines were described in detail in Babylonian writings dating back to 3000 BC, and papyrus scrolls dated from around 1550 BC that were found buried alongside a mummy in Thebes contain even more detailed accounts that are remarkably similar to what modern migraine sufferers describe. Even the Father of Medicine himself, Hippocrates, described what are clearly migraines in 460 BC, when he described a shining light that was typically seen in one eye and followed by severe pain that started in temples and worked its way to encompass the rest of the head and down into the neck. Hippocrates was also well ahead of his time by being the first to correlate head pain with exercise and seven sexual intercourse. Of course, Hippocrates also attributed migraines to vapors making their way up to the head from stomach and thought that the headache pain could be relieved by throwing up.
The Ebers Papyrus, named after George Ebers who obtained it, dates back to at least 1200 BC is an encyclopedic compilation of various prescriptions and medical treatments, including one for shooting pains in the head consistent with modern day migraine headaches. According to the instructions on the papyrus, Egyptians were to use a strip of linen to tie a clay crocodile holding grain in its mouth to the head of the patient. On the linen were written the names of those gods that the Egyptians believed could cure their ailments. As in so many things, the Egyptians may have been preternaturally aware of modern techniques because it is believed that this procedure could possibly have brought relief to the headache sufferer by compressing the scalp and collapsing the blood vessels that were causing the pain. At the very least it made more sense than the previous Egyptian cure for head pain, which was to simply rub a fried fish on afflicted side of the head.
Plato is considered one of the all-time great thinkers the world has ever produced, up there in the pantheon of great philosophers. And yet he seems to have been so wrong about so many things, including migraines. As far as Plato was concerned, head pain was caused by people paying too much attention to the body. In fact, Plato seems to be in that camp that thinks migraine sufferers are a bunch of whiners and that it’s all in their heads, but not in their expanding and constricting blood vessels. It may be time to start second-guessing this whole idea of Plato being really, really smart.
Hua T’o was a Chinese surgeon in the second century who is given credit for the invention of anaesthetic drugs among other things. He was also perhaps the first to take to acupuncture needles to cure migraines. In one particularly infamous and, hopefully, quite rare case, when Hua used a needle to carve a tumor out of patient suffering from pain between his eyes a canary flew out. The man not only lived, but was cured of his pain.
Hildegard of Bingen was a medieval nun and mystic who began experiencing visions at an early age. Her visions eventually led her to write several books on health and medicine and natural remedies. Both her written accounts and the illustrations she drew that reflected her visions have led the belief that those visions may have been the result of migraine auras. Her visions were detailed and vivid, as were her descriptions and she has built a significant following who consider her to be the first migraine-inspired artist. The typical treatment of migraines during Hildegard’s time during the Middle Ages basically consisted of opium and vinegar solutions applied to the skull, with the vinegar thought to have been used to open the pores of the scalp so that the opium would be more quickly absorbed.
Centuries, if not millennia, from now people may be reading a history of migraine treatment and shake their head when they reach the 21st century. Could treating with the ingredients found in medication one day be laughed at in the same way as we might laugh at the idea of treating it by rubbing a fried fish on our head?