Skepfeeds-The Best Skeptical blogs of the day

Trepanation: A most extreme form of quackery

Posted in Depleted Cranium by Skepdude on April 23, 2010


If there’s anything that can be said in favor of this idiotic procedure, it’s that at least it usually tends to be self-inflicted by those who actively seek it and is not normally something that quacks convince people, who would otherwise not do such an act, to do.   However, this is not always the case.   In 2000, at least two men were arrested in Utah for practicing medicine without a license after preforming trepanations on several individuals. The practitioners claimed that they could provide relief for a variety of conditions ranging from depression to addictions.  There is, of course, no scientific evidence of this being the case.

Warning: The following video contains some slightly graphic scenes of an actual medical trepanation. It’s only brief and relatively clinical, but if you’re really squeamish you may not want to watch. However, the second of the two videos is not graphic at all.

There are a number of individuals and organizations that push the procedure and advocate the benefits of trepanation.  One of the most vocal is Bart Hughes, who, despite often being called one, is not a doctor at all.   As recently as this year, Hughes has been publishing various articles and press releases claiming that the procedure has numerous benefits and can enhance human consciousness.  There is even an international trepanation advocacy group.

It is true that trepanation has a long history in both Western culture and other places in the world.  That said, “Well doctors in the middle ages did it,” is generally not recognized as a means of validating as good medicine.   Whether or not it ever had any therapeutic value is, at best, questionable, although few medical procedures of centuries past did.   Skulls with apparently intentionally created holes have been found in Asia, Europe and the Americas.   A few show signs of healing, indicating that not only was the hole created on purpose, but that the individual survived the procedure.

It is a fallacy to presume that there must be some special significance to a custom that was independently developed in multiple cultures.   In the case of trepanation there are examples of the practice from around the world, and some have used this as evidence that various societies must have discovered the effectiveness of the procedure.  There is, however, a simpler explanation.   Headaches are a common complaint in humans and have a number of causes.   They can range from irritating to nearly debilitating.  An individual suffering from persistent or severe headaches may feel as if there is pressure inside their head that must be relieved or that there was some need to release bad energy or spirits from their head.  Lacking an understanding of medicine and the human body, it’s easy to see how putting a hole in the skull might seem like the logical thing to do.


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