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Think about the last time you or a loved one had to undergo some kind of surgery or procedure at the hospital. Having your body open up or worked on is usually pretty scary, even though you know that chances are nothing will go wrong and you won’t be in too much pain. After all, most surgeries have anesthesia or laughing gas, and any pain you feel throughout the day can be stopped by popping a couple of Advils. 

But people in the 18th century weren’t as lucky—pain management was still far from being where it is today. In fact, the medical understanding of pain itself is relatively new. The 18th century was home to many scientific discoveries around pain and medication that helped make modern pain management what it is today. 

Discovering The Nature Of Pain

Before the Age of Enlightenment throughout the 1700s, the concept of pain was relatively simplistic—not much was known about the brain and its role in our body. Pain was thought to originate from where you felt the pain, whether that was from a cut on your arm or a broken tooth. French philosopher René Descartes brought the concept of idea to a new level even before the 18th century. 

In 1644, René Descartes’ (1596-1650) published the Principles of Philosophy, where he discussed how people sometimes feel pain in “phantom limbs” or limbs that used to be there but were removed. He surmised that since the pain was still felt in areas of the body that weren't actually in pain, pain originated from the brain. This “dualistic nature of pain” drove more research into the study of the brain in subsequent centuries and set the foundation for modern pain research.

As the Age of Enlightenment came about and the Catholic Church’s hold on scientific thought weakened,  the perception of pain became more complex and distinct from religious thought. Descarte, whether due to pressure from the Church or his own beliefs, also believed that pain was a perception of the soul. But by the time the 18th century rolled around, science and religion became more distinct and separate from each other, letting pain research more room to grow. 

Albrecht von Haller (1708-1777) advanced the study of pain with his research on nerve and muscle activity. He is often considered the “father of neurology” for his study of the nervous system and how it relates to the body’s pain receptors. 

18th Century Pain Medication

Since the concept of pain was still being discovered throughout the 18th century, ways to decrease pain was still in its infancy. Dealing with pain in the 1700s was, of course, much less effective than our modern medicine. Today, if you need surgery, you get put to sleep with anesthesia and have a pain-free experience. In the 1700s, any surgery or mild procedure was extremely painful. Until the discovery of ether in 1846, any surgery had to be done while the patient was fully conscious. 

Day-to-day pain management was done using traditional herbal concoctions like willow bark (which contains salicin, the main compound in modern aspirin), opium, and turmeric. Unsurprisingly, alcohol was and continues to be, a preferred pain management tool throughout the centuries.

One pain relief method that most people should be glad fell out of style was the tobacco smoke enema. Used in Europe in the late 1700s, doctors would blow tobacco smoke up the rectum. It was believed to treat headaches, as well as help resuscitate drowning victims by stimulating respiration. 

Right at the tail end of the 18th century in 1799, laughing gas (nitrous oxide) was discovered by chemist and inventor Humphry Davy. Soon after, it started being used in surgical procedures to relieve pain. It’s still a common pain management tool, most often used in dentists' offices across the world. 

Dealing With Pain Today

Thankfully, pain management has improved dramatically since the 18th century. Advancements in over-the-counter and prescription pain medications, coupled with a better understanding of the body, has made pain management easily accessible and more effective.

Daily pain today has switched from being due to manual labor to having a sedentary lifestyle. As more people across the world take on desk jobs and live their lives on the couch, pain has changed as well. Lower back pain from sitting too long or eye strain from looking at a screen all day are more the types of pain most people experience today.  But even for irritating conditions like these, we have support from chiropractors and spinal decompression therapy, as well as eye drops and blue light screening glasses, so it’s hard to say that even these chronic pains compare to those of the 1700s. 

But no matter how or why you experience pain, be thankful you have access to modern medicine and are not stuck with 18th-century medical solutions.