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The Surprising History of These 10 Common Health Conditions

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For the past year or two especially, illness in its many forms has taken on a prominent role in the collective mind. Some have been around since the days of antiquity (picture brontosauruses struggling with arthritis), while others are seemingly newly emerged, a product of modern living.

The way in which certain conditions were treated may seem plain bizarre to us now.  Undiagnosed children with celiac, for instance, ate strictly bananas (see below). Others had medical experts describing them in rather poetic and philosophical ways, such as “bewitched ear” for tinnitus. Still others you may cringe at when learning of both the judgmental lens through which they were perceived and inhumane ways in which they were treated by the folk of the time.

Here are the origins of ten conditions that still exist today.

1. Arthritis

Would you have ever guessed that dinosaurs experienced arthritis? According to paleontologists, some of them did. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) was not very common among them, but other forms of arthritis (including gout) were. The bones of one T-rex “showed the distinctive holes found in the bones of gout patients.” As far as arthritis in humans though, texts as far back as 4500 BC reference it, while a scroll from “123 AD describes symptoms that appear similar to RA.”

Though rare before the 1600s, during the Age of Exploration the disease spread across the Atlantic. In 1715 William Musgrave wrote one of the earliest texts that describing the symptoms of RA in detail. Known as the De Arthritide Symptomatica, it is still considered one of the most important publications on arthritis today. The condition adopted its current name in 1859. Lucille Ball, Auguste Renoir, actor James Coburn, and actress Camryn Manheim, all had some form of arthritis or RA.

2. Depression

In ancient times, Hippocrates believed that a balance between the four internal bodily mechanisms (blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm) resulted in good health, while a deficiency or excess in one would lead to physical symptoms. Philosopher Galen theorized that an excess of black bile, specifically, resulted in melancholic personality type.

Many cultures (even the most educated such as the Romans) believed depression to be caused by demons and evil spirits. To drive the demons out, depressed people were beaten and physically restrained. During the age of Enlightenment, treatments included the use of a spinning stool to return the brain contents back to their rightful positions, diet changes, horseback riding, vomiting, and water immersion (remaining underwater for as long as the patient could withstand without drowning).

In the ’60s and ’70s, more was uncovered, including Martin Seligman’s proposal of learned helplessness (where people give up on trying to alter their circumstances, believing that nothing they do will make a difference) and Aaron T. Beck’s view that the depressed are primed to automatically interpret events in a negative way. These theories contributed to the creation of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapy modality commonly used to treat depression today. Tricyclic antidepressants, which work on norepinephrine, came onto the markets in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, while SSRIs were introduced in the 1980s and SNRIs emerged in the mid ‘90s. Treatment options today are varied, awareness has taken hold, and stigma has been reduced.

3. Diabetes

Egyptian physician Hesy-Ra first noted diabetes in 1552 BC, observing patients who were emaciated and urinating frequently. Hundreds of years later, “water tasters” diagnosed it  by drinking the urine of suspected sufferers (a sweet taste indicated the disease)—and in 150 AD, the Greek physician Arateus (graphically) referred to diabetes as “the melting down of flesh and limbs into urine.” Those with access to farms back then were in luck, as doctors prescribed horseback riding as a form of exercise to relieve diabetes symptoms. Exercise in general was thought to result in less excessive urination.

More important developments were to come; in 1889 Oscar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering found that removing a dog’s pancreas could result in diabetes. This paved the way for German scientist Georg Zuelzer to discover, in the early 1900s, that patients could help control their diabetes by injecting pancreatic extract. In 1920, Canadian physician Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best came up with the idea of using insulin to treat it. Their colleagues J.B. Collip and John McCleod contributed to the research and helped develop a more refined form of insulin. Banting and McCleod won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for this work. Insulin remains the most common form of treatment for patients with type I diabetes. Patients can now also test their blood sugar levels at home, while using exercise, insulin, diet changes, and additional medications to control their diabetes.

4. Acne

Historically, internal imbalance was seen to be the cause of skin disease (and experts of the time weren’t far off—evidence showing a link between gut and skin health continues to emerge). In the 16th century Sir Thomas Elyot connected acne to an “abundance of melancholy blood” while also viewing it as a symptom of larger endocrinological imbalances. To treat it, the Greeks looked to balance the four humors (blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile), conceptualizing the pores as orifices that humors could pass through.They also used honey, as did the Egyptians.

In 1550 an Egyptian medical text proposed the use of sulphur, which many “high-end acne products” still incorporate to this day. Skin glands were identified after the invention of microscopes, which allowed for greater advancements in the field of dermatology. Specifically, in the 19th century doctor Thomas Bateman advised the world that acne was not a punishment from the gods, but rather, a product of sebaceous glands. Today, 85 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 experience some form of acne.

5. Lyme disease

Lyme disease and ticks have existed for thousands of years. The presence of bacteria that cause Lyme, found in “a recent autopsy on a 5,300 year old mummy,” is testament to this. Officially though, Lyme disease wasn’t recognized in the U.S. until the early 1970s, when a group of children and adults in Lyme, Connecticut began experiencing mysterious, debilitating health symptoms—among them swollen knees, skin rashes and severe headaches, without identifiable cause. Two mothers took it upon themselves to get to the bottom of it, doing their own research and communicating with scientists.

Willy Burgdorfer “found the connection between a deer tick and Lyme disease” in 1981, discovering the cause of Lyme to be the bacterium spirochete carried by ticks (the spirochete was named Burrelia burgdorferi after this doctor, to honor him). From then on doctors prescribed antibiotics as treatment—which, while successful at treating early-stage Lyme disease, their efficacy in treating Lyme that has progressed has been subject to debate.

Today, Lyme is both under-diagnosed and extremely difficult to diagnose. 400,000 new cases are reported every year. It’s no longer just a disease of the East Coast, but now present in every state except for Hawaii. Many patients struggle for years without knowing the cause of their symptoms. Famous people who have or had Lyme include Glennon Doyle, Justin Bieber, Avril Lavigne, and author Amy Tam.

6. Anxiety

George Miller, a young New York doctor, proposed in April 1869 that people were struggle with the “distinctly American affliction of neurasthenia, or nervous exhaustion,” noting that it primarily affected the ambitious and upwardly mobile members of the middle and upper classes. He proposed that their nervous systems were overtaxed by “a rapidly modernizing American civilization” and believed that he himself struggled with anxiety before overcoming it in his early 20s.

Today, “anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, or 18.1 percent of the population.” Only 37 percent of those struggling receive treatment. Celebrities with anxiety include Whoopi Goldberg, Emma Stone, Kesha, and Selena Gomez.

7. Celiac disease

When “early human diets began to expand, adding in grains, domesticated livestock and cultivated crops, most bodies were able to adapt—however, some did not and certain food sensitivities, intolerances and celiac disease made their first appearances in human history.”

Celiac disease was among them. Physician and medical writer Aretaeus of Cappadocia referred to the earliest account of it as “The Coeliac Affection,” naming the disease “koiliakos” after the Greek word koelia for abdomen.

Fast forward to the 1940s, and 30 percent of children with celiac disease were dying. After Dr. Sidney Haas came up with a “banana diet” that forbade starches while prescribing high intake of banana, those numbers went down. Dr. Haas became renowned as parents from all over the country took their ailing kids to see him.

The main problem with this treatment though, which continued into the early 1950s, was that once children healed and went back to a standard, gluten-containing diet, their symptoms returned. 1952 is when a British medical team finally published findings making it known that celiac patients were not to eat wheat or rye flour. Not long after, gluten was nailed down as the prime culprit within these ingredients.

Today, celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people, celebrities like Emmy Rossum and Zooey Deschanel among them. There is much greater awareness than in decades before, yet it’s estimated that 80 percent of celiac cases are still currently undiagnosed.

8. Parkinson’s

A London doctor, James Parkinson was the first to observe the symptoms of what we now know to be Parkinson’s disease. He wrote an essay detailing his observations of three patients who struggled with it, along with what he saw as its main symptoms: postural instability, rigidity, and tremors. Problems in the brain’s medulla region led to its development, he theorized. Though he encouraged the medical community to study the disease, they paid little attention to his essay until 1861, when French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot and his colleagues termed it “Parkinson’s Disease” after differentiating it from other neurological conditions.

Effective treatment eluded doctors for many years. Drugs used to treat Parkinson’s ranged from arsenic to morphine to hemlock to cannabis, according to a review by Christopher Goetz published in September 2011 in “Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Medicine.”

In the 1940s and 1950s neurosurgeons found they were able to improve disease symptoms by performing surgery on the basal ganglia of the brain—which, though effective, was also risky, with about 10 percent of patients dying from the operation. Of the 1 million Americans who struggle with it, actor Michael J. Fox (diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the age of 29) makes up a segment of the four percent with young onset of the disease.

9. Tinnitus

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 50 million Americans (15 percent of the general public) experience tinnitus, or chronic ringing in the ear. Twenty million struggle with chronic tinnitus, while two million struggle from debilitating cases of it.

A papyrus from the 17th Egyptian dynasty contains the first mention of this condition, describing those with it as having a “bewitched ear.” Clay tablets from Assyria also document people complaining of noise inside their ear (buzzing, whispering, singing). Early treatments included pouring rose extract into the ear through a bronze tube (The Assyrians); boiling earthworms in goose grease before inserting them into the ear (Roman writer Pliny the Elder); and placing a hot bread loaf up against the ear until it burns, creating perspiration that would then allow people to “sweat out” the tinnitus (Medieval Welsh physicians in the town of Myddfai). Wind that got trapped inside the ear was another early theory as to its cause. In order to free the wind, they would drill a hole into the bones around the ear. Or, they could use a silver tube to suck air out of the ear canal.

Today, tinnitus still confounds most medical professionals. It is often not considered its own condition, but rather a symptom of one. Of the many potential causes, allergies, poor gut health, benign brain tumors, low stomach acid, and TMJ dysfunction are among them. Tinnitus with clearly identifiable causes, such as earwax accumulation or fluid buildup in the ear, is easily treatable. Many other times though, the underlying cause is elusive. Treatment therefore is often focused on symptoms management, with white noise machines prescribed to drown out the noise, and lifestyle changes advised to alleviate symptom severity.

10. Sleep apnea

Pickwickian syndrome” was the term used to describe sleep apnea patients in the 19th century—named after a character in Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, who was overweight and experienced symptoms of the condition. At this time much of the focus was on body fat’s contribution to its development, with obesity seen as a key factor. Later studies expanded on this thinking however and showed that other factors can also contribute.

It was in the 1950s and ’60s that the core problem of sleep apnea came to light: people weren’t breathing properly during sleep, and that their constellation of seemingly separate conditions weren’t just random and unrelated. The 1970s saw an increase in research and exploration of the condition, with the use of tracheotomies to treat sleep apnea in both dogs and humans becoming common-place. In the early 1980s Colin Sullivan invented the CPAP machine to aid sleepers with their breathing by opening their airways. Even though it wasn’t embraced by patients and the public originally, it’s since “become the go-to treatment” for sleep apnea patients.

Getty image by Chinnapong

Originally published: March 3, 2022
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