Medical Madness: Trepanning Edition

The new edition of the Medical Madness mini-feature: all about trepanning! Back in the day, people enjoyed drilling holes into the skulls of folks possessed by demons, as well as a host of other reasons. This skull-hole-drilling is the aforementioned trepanning, or trepanation. We'll examine the good, the bad and the ugly behind this ancient medical practice.

Trepanation is one of the oldest surgical procedures in the world, dating back to prehistoric times. What is it, I hear you ask? It involves scraping or drilling a hole into the skull- not a little dent, by the way. A hole you can get to the brain through.

One can only guess what the purpose of this was 8000 years ago- it could be anything from fractures to religious or superstitious practices. Some later cave paintings indicate that it was used to treat all ailments related to the head and brain; mental disorders, migraines and siezures included… Which almost makes sense. We know that the bone fragments extracted were often kept, and worn by the patient as a sinister lucky charm. And somehow- who knows how- there is significant evidence that many patients survived the ordeal, as many skulls with trepanation holes were clearly healed.

It seems that this scary surgery was carried out all over the shop, from Europe to Meso-America. There's some confusion, however, about whether the South American skulls were really trepanned; the related peoples also used "skull-racks" to impale unfortunate heads upon, and it's doubtless that many holey skulls suffered this fate. However, evidence of genuine trepanning also exists, and it seems that it really did permeate every culture. The Greeks (hello, Hippocrates!) seemed to like it, and it carried on right through to modern times. It was popular in the Renaissance era and the Middle Ages, and had a patricularly significant presence in the Pagan Hungarian population- in some areas, as many as 12.5% of skulls featured trepanation holes. However, this disappeared after Christianity came to the area.

It's still used to treat some brain injuries, such as hematomas (bleeding outside blood vessels), and to allow access to the brain for other reasons, like monitoring the pressure inside the skull. Usually the bone is replaced ASAP to miminise damage to the soft brainy-bits, but sometimes it's left, like the days of old. The trephines (bone cutting tools) which are used nowadays are much less traumatic than the ones our stone-age pals favoured, and the practice itself is normally called "craniotomy".

Clearly, trepanning wasn't utterly batty. Doubtless, it sometimes helped, such as when people had fragments of bone from injuries stuck in their brain. However, I reckon that much of the time, people just wanted to follow the crowd and get the latest strange procedure done to themselves- just look at people flocking to detox clinics! It's super-nifty-and-trendy to detox… maybe it was once super-nifty-and-trendy to get a sizeable hole punched into your noggin. Oh, humanity. Y u so silleh?


Image Credit: Wikipedia

Previous post

Suspension of Disbelief: The Hunger Games

Next post

Teen Skepchick's Reality Checks 4.04




  1. April 3, 2012 at 7:50 pm —

    Rarely, but still terrifying, this still happens. Voluntarily. *holds head in pain*

    • April 9, 2012 at 8:28 am —

      WHY? Why would you subject yourself to this…? ):

Leave a reply