5 Ancient Medical Treatments Doctors Are Still Using Today

Step into your doctor’s office and you’ll likely see X-ray machines that offer high-quality images, other scanning equipment, and tools that can determine body fat percentage in addition to just weight. Your practitioner is within a foot of thousands of dollars of equipment every day, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everything they’re using is new to the medical world.

Surprisingly enough, there are some practices that abide by the adage, “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” Certain treatments that have been used for hundreds of years still work perfectly just the way they are, so why change a good thing? Here are a few old-time treatments that haven’t had much of an upgrade since they were first introduced.

1. Craniotomy

Brain lobes in different colors

The craniotomy has been around a long time. | iStock.com/alex-mit

A craniotomy isn’t a procedure we’re all destined to go through, but anyone who has had a brain tumor or swelling in the brain probably recognizes the term. The Mayfield Clinic explains this procedure is used to access the brain, and they do this by cutting an opening through the skull to remove the bone flap. Depending on why the surgery needs to take place, the opening can greatly range in size.

Once the craniotomy is complete, the bone flap is put back into place with plates and screws. Don’t expect to jump back on your feet immediately after this procedure, though — while some people recover in just a few days, others are in the hospitable for weeks. 

How ancient is the craniotomy?

doctors performing surgery

Here’s just how ancient it is. | iStock.com

Any procedure near the brain is no joke, and only highly experienced neurosurgeons who often have extra training in skull-based surgery are performing craniotomies these days. This was a much different story when the procedure began thousands of years ago, though.

The journal Acta Otorhinolaryngol Italica says researchers have found skull perforations dating all the back to 8000–5000 B.C. While these perforations were originally thought to be from trauma of some kind, an anthropologist in 1783 suggested these perforations weren’t accidental — in fact, they were likely associated with a medical procedure.

Many think craniotomies were most likely first performed because of rituals relating to magic or religion. At the time, the story says, the procedure was thought to release any inner demons and potential spirits. Later, it was used to relieve headaches, convulsions, or other chronic neurological problems, though only about 50% of these patients survived due to the primitive instruments and lack of proper medical equipment. We’re thankful over-the-counter meds exist for headaches these days.

2. C-section

Pregnant woman holding belly

Cesarean sections have been around for ages. | iStock.com/tamaravidmar

Giving birth via Cesarean section is pretty common these days — MedlinePlus reports about one in every three women give birth this way. During a C-section, the baby is surgically taken out of the mother’s abdomen during labor. It takes longer to recover from this than a vaginal birth because it’s a pretty major surgery. And if you’ve had the operation for one child, giving birth to children vaginally later can be more challenging.

Some women even choose to give birth this way, while others do so when problems occur at the time of labor. Health complications with the mother, the positioning of the baby, or carrying multiple babies are all reasons as to why a doctor may recommend a C-section.

How ancient is the C-section?

baby in a crib

Here’s how it all began. | iStock.com

How did the name Cesarean section come to fruition? Many believe Julius Caesar’s birth in 100 B.C. had something to do with it. The U.S. National Library of Medicine explains many believe he was born with the help of this procedure, though this is probably a myth. Caesar’s mother lived through the birth, which at the time, would have been highly unlikely following a surgery like this one. And at the time of his birth, C-sections were only performed on mothers who were dying or died during childbirth anyway. “Caedare” also means “to cut” in Latin, which is another possible origin.

The Romans may not have been the only ones performing this surgery, either. Ancient Hindu, Egyptian, Grecian, and European folklore all hint this practice may have been more widespread. We might never get a clear answer on where and how this procedure truly started, but we know it’s ancient.

3. Acupuncture

acupuncture therapy

Acupuncture has ancient roots. | iStock.com

Whether a total placebo or an actual technique for healing the mind and body, the value of acupuncture is hotly debated among medical professionals. Scientific American explains the theory behind acupuncture is this: Your life force of energy, known as qi, flows through your body via 20 routes. If these pathways are blocked, you get sick since energy can’t travel freely. The needles that are then inserted into the body along these routes are meant to unblock the routes. This, in turn, is said to reduce pain, illness, and leave you with a clearer mind.

Science has debunked qi and many studies have shown the placement of the needles doesn’t affect how the patient feels afterwards. Practitioners still believe this practice has its benefits even without the science to back it, though, and many patients do reportedly feel better after each session.

Though your primary care physician may not put you on a strict acupuncture regimen anytime soon, don’t be too surprised if they suggest trying it — the Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital have staffed acupuncturists, so clearly not everyone is in doubt.

How ancient is acupuncture?

massage therapist giving a massage

Acupuncture was a practice in ancient Chinese medicine. | iStock.com

This practice is deeply rooted in ancient Chinese medicine, with the first account recorded in texts from second century B.C., The Guardian says. In the Western world, acupuncture took hold in the early 17th century. Though it become more popular over time, that eventually dwindled by the 20th century.

The story goes on to say Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, promoted acupuncture and other traditional Chinese medicines beginning in 1966. When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, the practice was gaining steam in the West once again, and it continues to be popular among holistic health believers.

While acupuncture typically brings forth uncomfortable thoughts of needles, today’s traditional practitioners actually spend a lot of time monitoring the vital signs of the patient. The face, body, tongue, and pulse are checked before needles are introduced. Though they may be using more modern technology to check vitals, make no mistake — the practice is still based off of ancient concepts.

4. Maggot therapy

medical team suiting up prior to surgery

Surprisingly, yes, this is still used today. | iStock.com

This medical treatment certainly isn’t for the faint of heart — maggot therapy is as gross as it sounds. Live Science explains the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved using maggots to help heal wounds back in 2004. Essentially, maggots have an enzyme they secrete that dissolves dead tissue but has no negative effect on healthy tissue. This practice is ideal for those who have wounds that won’t heal and can’t undergo surgery or receive anesthesia. In most cases, surgery is the way to go, but there have been a number of cases that show maggot therapy is also a decently effective alternative.

Though few people actually go through this practice, it’s administered by placing sterile maggots in a small pouch that is then placed on the wound. More research needs to be done to show if adding more maggots to the wound would make it heal faster, but there’s some concern it could be painful.

How ancient is maggot therapy?

doctor talking to a male patient in an exam room

Maggots have been around for quite awhile in the medical world. | iStock.com

Yet again, this practice dates back quite a bit. Dr. Anthony Youn tells CNN maggot therapy was common during the late 1700s. Later, during World War I and II, it was common to add maggots to soldier’s wounds to clean and heal them. Starting in the 1920s, scientists began studying this therapy, which is when they learned of how helpful it can really be.

The 1930s were a big time for maggot therapy — it became common practice to apply these insects to burns, abscesses, or infected wounds of any kind. When penicillin was finally introduced in the ’40s, maggots became much less common. But they’ve since made a resurgence as scientists discover strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

5. Bloodletting

patient getting a flu shot from the hospital

Yep, bloodletting still happens today. | Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Your doctor certainly isn’t going to drain blood from you for fear of evil spirits anymore, but bloodletting is still a recommended treatment in some cases. BC Medical Journal explains this practice is known as phlebotomy therapy, and it’s primarily used for hemochromatosis, a disorder that causes excess iron to accumulate in the liver, and polycythemia vera, a bone morrow disorder where a person produces too many blood cells.

The procedure for phlebotomy therapy today is much gentler than it used to be. The Blood Connection says this treatment may be offered every few days or less depending on the patient and how they’re responding to it. Typically, it’s done with a syringe.

How ancient is bloodletting?

man getting his blood pressure taken by a doctor

Look at the poles outside of a barber shop — those used to signify bloodletting back in the 18th century. | iStock.com

Greek, Roman, Arab, and Asian cultures have all practiced bloodletting at some point in their history, but the practice began more than 3,000 years ago with the Egyptians, BC Medical Journal notes. This practice really came to fruition when Hippocrates, a Greek physician, noted each person had four “humors,” or physical qualities that related to the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. These humors were blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. If you were ill at the time, it was thought that one of these humors was imbalanced and excess needed to be removed. Since blood was considered the most dominant of the four, bloodletting was common.

Cutting a vein near the elbow with a small blade was the most common form of this practice. There was also scarification and cupping, which involved scraping the skin with small knives and then placing a dome-shaped glass over to suction to the wound. In the 1830s, leeching became incredibly popular, and it’s a method that still takes place today. Bloodletting didn’t escape controversy, however. Even early on, many physicians questioned its benefits.

How about a fun fact? The Huffington Post says barbers were more like a hair cutter-surgeons until the late 18th century, and part of their duties included bloodletting. The red and white in barber’s poles represents the color of bloodied bandages.