10 Frightening Ways Doctors Used To Treat Mental Disorders

trepanation, skull

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Nobody ever claimed a visit to the doctor was a pleasant way to pass the time.But if you’re timid about diving onto a psychiatrist’s couch or paranoid about popping pills, remember: It could be worse.

Like getting-a-hole-drilled-into-your-skull worse.

The coma-therapy trend began in 1927. Viennese physician Manfred Sakel accidentally gave one of his diabetic patients an insulin overdose, and it sent her into a coma. But what could have been a major medical faux pas turned into a triumph. The woman, a drug addict, woke up and declared her morphine craving gone. Then Sakel (who really isn't earning our trust here) made the same mistake with another patient, who also woke up claiming to be cured.

Before long, Sakel was intentionally testing the therapy with other patients and reporting a 90 per cent recovery rate, particularly among schizophrenics. Strangely, however, Sakel's treatment successes remain a mystery. Presumably, a big dose of insulin causes blood sugar levels to plummet, which starves the brain of food and sends the patient into a coma. But why this unconscious state would help psychiatric patients is anyone's guess.

Regardless, the popularity of insulin therapy faded, mainly because it was dangerous. Slipping into a coma is no walk in the park, and between one and two per cent of treated patients died as a result.

Hydrotherapy involved wrapping patients in towels, strapping them in a tub and making them soak in ice water for days.

Franz Mesmer accidentally created hypnosis when he used magnets and phases of the moon to make patients believe they were cured.

Malaria therapy didn't treat malaria—it used blood that was infected with the disease to treat syphilis.

Ah, if only we were talking about a therapy for malaria.

Instead, this is malaria as therapy--specifically, as a treatment for syphilis. There was no cure for the STD until the early 1900s, when Viennese neurologist Wagner von Jauregg got the idea to treat syphilis sufferers with malaria-infected blood. Predictably, these patients would develop the disease, which would cause an extremely high fever that would kill the syphilis bacteria.

Once that happened, they were given the malaria drug quinine, cured, and sent home happy and healthy. The treatment did have its share of side effects--that nasty sustained high fever, for one--but it worked, and it was a whole lot better than dying. In fact, Von Jauregg won the Nobel Prize for malaria therapy, and the treatment remained in use until the development of penicillin came along and gave doctors a better, safer way to cure the STD.

Ladislas von Meduna claimed that chemically-induced seizures could cure any schizophrenic.

Nobody ever said doctors had flawless logic. A good example: seizure therapy.

Hungarian pathologist Ladislas von Meduna pioneered the idea. He reasoned that, because schizophrenia was rare in epileptics, and because epileptics seemed blissfully happy after seizures, then giving schizophrenics seizures would make them calmer. In order to do this, von Meduna tested numerous seizure-inducing drugs (including such fun candidates as strychnine, caffeine, and absinthe) before settling on metrazol, a chemical that stimulates the circulatory and respiratory systems.

And although he claimed the treatment cured the majority of his patients, opponents argued that the method was dangerous and poorly understood. To this day, no one is quite clear on why seizures can help ease some schizophrenic symptoms, but many scientists believe the convulsions release chemicals otherwise lacking in patients' brains. Ultimately, the side effects (including fractured bones and memory loss) turned away both doctors and patients.

Phrenologists studied skull shapes to diagnose mental problems.

Around the turn of the 19th century, German physician Franz Gall developed phrenology, a practice based on the idea that people's personalities are depicted in the bumps and depressions of their skulls. Basically, Gall believed that the parts of the brain a person used more often would get bigger, like muscles. Consequently, these pumped-up areas would take up more skull space, leaving visible bumps in those places on your head.

Gall then tried to determine which parts of the skull corresponded to which traits. For instance, bumps over the ears meant you were destructive; a ridge at the top of the head indicated benevolence; and thick folds on the back of the neck were sure signs of a sexually oriented personality. In the end, phrenologists did little to make their mark in the medical field, as they couldn't treat personality issues, only diagnose them (and inaccurately, at that).

By the early 1900s, the fad had waned, and modern neuroscience had garnered dominion over the brain.

Lobotomies

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