No, Getting a Hole Drilled in Your Head Was Never a Migraine Cure

We have skeletal evidence of human brain surgery going back 12,000 years, but since there was no written language to accompany those early cases, the reasons for trepanation in ancient cultures is a matter of conjecture. Later medical accounts say that skulls were drilled open to treat fractures, epilepsy, or paralysis, or for experiments. Some patients even survived the procedure. A tale arose that trepanation in ancient cultures was to "let the migraines out," but there is no evidence for this in either skulls or ancient literature. Where did that idea come from?

The real source of the myth seems to have come much later. In 1902, the Journal of Mental Science published a lecture by Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton, a London physician well-known for his work on pharmacology and ideas about migraine pathology. The lecture mixed neurological theory and armchair anthropology, and ranged over subjects including premonitions, telepathy, hypnotism, hallucinations, and epileptic and migrainous aura. In one notable passage, Brunton proposed that visions of fairies and the sound of their jingling bells were “nothing more” than the zigzags of migraine aura, and the aural results of nerve centre stimulation.

Brunton proposed that openings bored into ancient Stone Age skulls during life had been made to cure migraine. His suggestion followed considerable excitement during the 1870s when the French physician and anthropologist Paul Broca claimed that ancient skulls discovered in Peru and France had not only been opened surgically during life in order to release evil spirits, but that the patients had survived. To Brunton, it seemed obvious that the holes would have been made at the request of migraine sufferers in order to “let the headache out”.

Read more about what we know and what we don't know about trepanation at Smithsonian.

(Image credit: Rama)


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