What weird ancient medicines are still being used today?

The history of medicine is amazing and terrifying in equal measure. Medical breakthroughs are made every day, but sometimes ancient cures still do a good job. The following examples of treatments are unusual, weird, and somewhat disgusting – and they have all been around for centuries. This article is not for the squeamish…

Five weird ancient treatments that just won’t die:

5. Maggots: chomping on your dead tissue

Maggot therapy became popular on the battlefield centuries ago as a way to deal with infected war wounds. Doctors noticed that wounds that had been covered with maggots tended to heal better and quicker. The maggot larvae only eat dead things and so will only eat the dead tissue in a wound, leaving the living tissue unharmed. Doctors stopped using maggots when penicillin became widespread, but with the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, maggot therapy is making a comeback. (Although it’s now called ‘MDT’ to stop people from getting freaked out.)

4. Leeches: sucking blood, saving lives

A foot after a leech attack. Not attractive. (Source: Howie Weiner on Flickr.)
A foot after a leech attack. Not nice. (Source: Howie Weiner on Flickr)

Continuing with animals that we usually wouldn’t want on our bodies, leeches are today used to treat blood clots and for reconstructive surgery. Leech therapy goes back a long way and, amazingly, there are records of leeches being used medicinally in both ancient India and Greece.

Leeches produce anti-coagulants (substances that prevents blood from clotting) in their saliva. After surgery, leeches can be stuck onto parts of the body that need particularly good blood flow. For example, they are used on re-attached body parts like fingers, ears, or skin grafts. But leeches have other uses, like treating varicose veins and reducing some types of swelling. And their bites don’t hurt, because their spit also contains an anaesthetic. Bet you never knew leech slobber could be so useful.

3. Bees: a sweet sweet medicine

Volunteering to be stung by a bee may sound crazy, but, like leech saliva, bee venom contains anti-coagulant and anti-inflammatory ingredients. Bee venom has therefore been tried as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis (with very mixed results).

There are problems with using bee venom as medicine. Although bee venom contains many helpful substances and has been used since the late 1800s, it can also cause fatal allergic reactions. Also, bee venom research presently leaves many people unconvinced of a sting’s curative power.

Less painful is honey, which has been used as a medicine as far back as ancient Egypt. A spoonful of that certainly won’t hurt.

2. Acupuncture: needles that nurse

Not every odd medical treatment that’s stuck around for a few centuries has to do with animals that make the skin crawl. Jamming needles into your skin to cure aches and pains might seem counterproductive, but acupuncture is hundreds of years old and still practiced widely around the globe. The needles come in many different sizes and can go nearly anywhere, from feet and hands to the face and ears.

It’s incredibly popular, but there is an ongoing debate about whether acupuncture is medically effective, or just helps people by working as a placebo. Advocates within the medical profession say that there is a decent amount of research to show that when it comes to chronic pain conditions, acupuncture can help.

1: Hannibal Lecter style surgery: drilling into the head

Trepanation, as described by Hans von Gersdorff in Feldbuch der Wundartzney (1517)Some people used to believe that head pain could be caused by demons lurking inside the skull, and that drilling a hole into the patient’s head would release them. Evidence of this procedure, called trepanation, dates back to prehistoric times and its practice has continued throughout much of human history.

Doctors are no longer on the lookout for demons, but trepanation is still occasionally performed to remove pieces of the skull to release pressure on the brain. This high pressure is usually due to swelling or bleeding caused by severe head trauma, and the removed piece of skull is generally replaced as soon as is possible.


These odd treatments are just a small selection of the many strange and ancient medical therapies still around today. Some have survived to modern times mostly unchanged; others are best left in the past, like blood-letting when you’re feeling under the weather. Perhaps a hundred years from now someone will write an article about the strange medicine we have today, but then again, they might still be using maggots.

NB: This article is not intended as medical advice. Some of these treatments can be fatal if not administered correctly. Please do not try any of this without consulting a physician.

Answer by Shambralyn Baker


1.Whitaker, Iain et. al. (2007), Larval Therapy from Antiquity to the Present Day: Mechanisms of Action, Clinical Applications and Future Potential. Postgraduate Medical Journal, 83: 409-413.

2. Hopton, A. and MacPherson, H. (2010), Acupuncture for Chronic Pain: Is Acupuncture More than an Effective Placebo? A Systematic Review of Pooled Data from Meta-analyses. Pain Practice, 10: 94–102.

3. Michalsen, Andres. Medicinal Leech Therapy. 2011.

4. The American Apitherapy Society Inc.

5. Frood, Aran (2009), Like a Hole in the Head: The Return of Trepanation. New Scientist, 2712.

Article by Shambralyn Baker

July 3, 2014

Shambralyn Baker studied both biology and writing in college, and has finally decided to combine her two passions. She tweets at @sevvy09.

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