In modern medicine, electrical stimulation is a common tool used in many different medical procedures. However, this is not an entirely modern invention.
Despite modern electricity being a relatively recent invention, it seems that the ancients also knew the benefits of electrical stimulation. They just had to be more creative in sourcing their electricity.
While we are using controlled electrical stimulation for the treatment of many diseases, the earliest use of electrical simulations was through bioelectrical simulations. Bioelectrical simulations were used to treat pain and other medical diseases.
Around 2500 BC, there were instances of bioelectrical simulations used in areas of Egypt. The stone carvings found today in Egypt from that era show the use of a “torpedo”, a fish capable of discharging an electric current. These fishes were used to send bioelectrical simulations into the body to relieve pain and fatigue from muscles.
The torpedo is capable of creating strong bioelectrical currents from its body. Egyptians used the electrical currents arising from the body of the torpedo by placing the fish on different parts of the body. The shocks would ultimately treat pain from different parts of the body.
Egyptian civilization was not the only community that depended on the use of bioelectrical simulations. Apart from the Egyptians, the Romans were also adept at using the early forms of electrotherapy.
In ancient Rome, around the year 63 AD, there was the use of electrical stimulation for pain control. Scribonius Largus had recorded that standing on an electrical fish at the seashore was a treatment for pain and fatigue.
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Scribonius was the court physician to the Roman Emperor Claudius, and his records can be taken as proof of the electrotherapy technique that was used back then. He states in his treatment record that he used a black torpedo or a bioelectric fish.
Until the 19th century, this technique was used to cure headaches. Headaches and pain were later treated by the electrical cell method when mechanical, electrical sources were invented.
Individual generators and transcutaneous currents were later used after the advent of electrical cells. Like Largus, there were other physicians interested in the use of electrical currents for therapy. For example, Dioscorides even used Roman electrotherapy for the treatment of anal prolapse.
While there were some physicians in the ancient world who claimed that electrotherapy had a lot of benefits, there were others who did not prescribe it to patients. For example, Galen claimed that he used the therapy without any proper results. Despite the claim that such electro therapies did not work to a great extent, they were used in parts of Europe and Africa.
The records Largus left were the first records of Roman electrotherapy. However, the earlier proof from the Egyptian civilization showed that North Africa also knew the technique of using bioelectrical simulations from obliging fish in their medicine. It is interesting that even before the invention of the electrical cell and modern electrotherapy devices, humans knew the importance of electrical current in therapeutic use.
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Until the 18th century, there were no electrical therapy devices. In the 18th century, inventor Luigi Galvani discovered the properties of the electric current. Later, Alessandro Volta was responsible for the invention of the electrical battery, which was later used for electrotherapy.
In the 19th century, Electrotherapy evolved further as batteries started developing. Early electrotherapy cells used chemical reactions to generate electric current.
However, with the use of wet cells, there was always the risk of leakage. Later, the invention of dry cells brought out better electrotherapy machines for medical use. The dry cells held paste instead of electrolytes in liquid, which made them easier to use and portable.
These batteries could provide direct current or alternating current based on the nature of the cell. Medical batteries and electrotherapy were mostly used from the 1870s to 1920s.
These cells were considered legitimate medical tools to provide electrotherapy treatments at home and in clinics. Physicians were widely using these electrical shocks for chronic pain and neurological disorder treatment.
However, the use of medical batteries fell out of favor in the 20th century as more advanced treatment options came up. There are many antique medical devices of electrotherapy that are termed quack medicine tools today.
The reason why such devices today are termed quack medical tools is such devices were trusted by physicians and used in clinics. However, they were also used by patients directly at home. With this disputed positioning, the devices are termed quack medicine tools today. With the advancement of medical technology, these medical tools have become obsolete and unnecessary.
The companies that put up such medical devices targeted both the medical markets and home consumer markets. The medical and home consumer markets were at one time highly interested in such devices.
However, marketers also feared that the extensive use of such devices at home would dilute their importance and clinical use. With time, this happened with the electrotherapy devices and other tools that were aligned with the therapy method. Doctors and medical practitioners went for more advanced tools and setups.
Even though the earliest electrotherapy devices are now obsolete, one cannot dismiss the role of electrical simulations in the treatment of various diseases. From ancient times to today, the use of electrical signals in the treatment and diagnosis of diseases has been crucial.
Whether it was the Ancient Egyptians or the Ancient Romans who used bioelectrical therapy from animals, science evolved beyond the biological sphere to mechanical devices. Even today, many tribes use the electrical current simulation capacity of certain fishes and animals for the treatment of localized pain. However, the use of electrical current should be controlled because it can also lead to death.
Top Image: Roman mosaic from Tunisia. The two orange fish with five circles are “torpedo” rays, capable of generating electricity and used by the Romans for electrotherapy. Source: Dennis Jarvis / CC BY-SA 2.0.
By Bipin Dimri