Bloodletting 101 – an alternative history

29 Sep

Alt-med groupies tell us they are on the cutting edge of medical science, and that fringe providers are somehow protecting patients from the ravages of evidenced-based medicine. They even offer examples, as one austim list serve member did when he wrote “Mainstream medicine used to think bloodletting cured disease. So science doesn’t have all the answers!” I’ve read variations on this statement.

It’s true that doctors once prescribed bloodletting for a wide range of conditions. The ancient Greeks were big into bloodletting, based on a non-empirical view of the natural world which held that blood was composed of four “humours”, symbolizing earth, air, water and fire. Bloodletting was popular for 2,000 years because it seemed to work. Some patients improved after being bled. Doctors just knew it worked, and could point to centuries of precedent.

It’s difficult for the modern mind to grasp why anyone would consider deliberate bloodletting to be a cure for anything. But the answers are quite simple.

First of all, patients have always felt that it’s better to do something than nothing. Before the germ theory of disease, which is only 130 years old, there wasn’t much doctors could do for most diseases short of bed rest and chicken soup. Bloodletting may have been messy and painful, but at least someone was trying something. So, odd as it may seem, bloodletting actually had a placebo effect on some patients.

Since bloodletting wasn’t evidenced-based, it was assumed that those patients that improved after being bled must have benefited by the bleeding. If anybody had thought to do a controlled study 500 years ago, they would have found that the patients who weren’t bled recovered more quickly and in greater numbers than the ones that were. But alas, evidence-based medicine was still a ways off.

I suppose if there was an internet back then, one could have learned the benefits of bloodletting from scores of websites. Bleed Autism Now! practitioners would spread the BAN! protocol far and wide, telling story after story of the children who were rescued from the abyss of mind-blindness and senseless spinning. The more people who signed on to the BAN! protocol, the more self-evident its worth. Heart-shaped Autism Bandages would adorn every donkey cart, testament to the love that parents felt for the children they bled.

And evidence-based skeptics would have been called “hemophobes” and burned at the stake as child abusers.

6 Responses to “Bloodletting 101 – an alternative history”

  1. Bonnie Ventura September 29, 2007 at 16:03 #

    Bloodletting actually is a proper medical treatment for a genetic disorder, hemochromatosis, which is common in some areas of Europe.

    Hemochromatosis causes excessive iron to be absorbed from food and to build up in the body’s organs. Regular bloodletting reduces the amount of iron in the blood and prevents organ damage.

    The ancient doctors who practiced bloodletting must have observed that it caused a great improvement in the health of some patients, and because they didn’t know how to distinguish between those who needed it and those who didn’t, they just tried it on everyone.

    It’s the same general idea as trying all sorts of diets on autistic kids because some of them have digestive problems and might benefit from the diet. Primitive trial and error.

  2. notmercury September 29, 2007 at 16:50 #

    I know DAN! doctors like to be at the bleeding edge of medical advancements. I sure hope they don’t pick up on this idea 😉

  3. culvercitycynic September 29, 2007 at 18:59 #

    In a way, many of them DO do a form of blood-letting given the extensive labs they request a child a have done.

  4. Ms. Clark September 30, 2007 at 00:13 #

    Welcome to hub blogging, Ken! BAN!, very funny. 😀

  5. Kristina September 30, 2007 at 02:40 #

    Isn’t it more like Bleed Wallets of Autism Parents now……

  6. Isles September 30, 2007 at 03:35 #

    Be careful when you joke about this kind of thing. It’s quite possible some mercury mom will fail to get that you’re making a point and not a suggestion. No doubt some quack could be found to provide the service; after all, mommies know best!

Comments are closed.

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