History of pain and pain management

One of my colleagues at Burwood Pain Management Centre presented an interesting education session on the history of pain management – it made us all feel very grateful we are now in modern times because electric eels placed on the painful part, bloodletting and death from ingesting all manner of herbal potions just don’t appeal! (Oh, but it’s ‘natural’!)

The presentation did make me curious (OK so that’s my strangeness outed – as if you didn’t know!) so I thought I’d see what information’s about on the internet on the history of pain treatment and management.

Just before I link to some of the sites I found, I thought I’d give you this wonderful image – and it’s in modern times…

Anyway, The John C. Liebeskind History of Pain Collection contains some of the most authoritative and extensive collections of post-World War II pain history documents.

The focus of this collection is ‘on the origins, growth, and development of the international, interdisciplinary pain field’ and one of the major achievements is the exhibit called ‘The Relief of Pain and Suffering’ which contains some great information on the attempts to relieve pain prior to the 19th Century.

It has several wonderful engravings of late 1800’s pharmaceuticals such as the one below – note it is recommended for children ’10 drops every four hours’.

The UCLA Online Biomedical Library also has links to a large number of allied internet resources. One of the ones that really tickled my fancy was History of Medicine Images collection. If you search ‘pain’ 85 images depicting pain and pain relief in history are located – and if you didn’t feel squeamish looking at that bloodletting picture above, some of these will certainly turn your stomach! They’re primarily old engravings and line drawings of things like ‘The blacksmith turned toothpuller’ and ‘woman in labour’. Information about copyright is provided, so you can see how to access these images for use in presentations perhaps!

Now turning to more modern times, our fascination with magnetic, electric, hot and cold devices with special ‘healing’ properties hasn’t waned. While I can accept that in the 1800’s, when evidence-based methods were scarce, I cannot understand why we have open advertising for things that just don’t stand up to close scrutiny. I clearly recall people coming to Pain Management with magnets like these in the mid-1990’s…, and the ‘magnetic underlay’ can still be bought today – endorsed by prominent sportspeople and the like. The history of electric devices for pain relief goes as far back as the electric eel mentioned above, but carried on with ‘Dr Bell’s Electro Appliance’, an electrified belt that was advertised as ‘This appliance is for Sexual Debility, Nerve Troubles, Stomach kidney, Liver, Bowel or Bladder weakness, Rheumatism and other congested or weakened conditions of the system…’.

More recently? Well, this link leads us to an Electric Sympathetic Block for pain relief, and this link for transcutaneous spinal electroanalgesia. I’m not sure of the efficacy of this type of treatment – but it doesn’t seem to have developed too far from the original electric eel to the painful part, just perhaps a little less ‘natural’.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this diversion into the history of pain treatments – and that I haven’t scared you off coming back! Please, if you’ve got about 5 – 10 minutes, click into my Questionnaire on pain management strategies. I’m really keen to find out what definitions we use for coping strategies, and whether there is any agreement on what we use them for, and why we use them. Congratulations to the person who was first!! A social worker by trade, but I know nothing more about him/her, but thanks for being the first to answer!


  1. Excellent post… most people fail to realize how young organized medicine is. Some incredibly crazy notions and potions existed not too long ago… no wonder many seniors are skeptical of doctors!

  2. Amazing isn’t it?!! Although I see many older people who are more accepting of conventional health care than younger people who perhaps have better health and don’t (yet) need the efficacy of modern medications…
    I was amazed at the liberal use of laudanum – a few drops here, a few drops there – kids and all! Would make for a very quiet household I think.
    Thanks for visiting and taking the time to comment.

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