Got a headache? How about curing it by drilling a hole in your skull? (DON’T!) Read on for more about the ancient (and grisly) art of trepanning…

Before we start…

Mainstream medics still say there is NO EVIDENCE for trepanning being beneficial and it goes without saying that it is incredibly risky. SO DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME, FOLKS!

What is it?

Trepanning: illustration of hole being drilled into head

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Trepanning is the drilling of a hole into a person’s skull to supposedly treat a health or personality problem. Maybe a headache (if you’ve ever had a migraine you’ll know the need for relief!), to reduce pressure on the brain, or to ‘release evil spirits’ which have caused some ‘abnormality’ or illness.

Cave days

Trepanning: caveman with headache

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Trepanning is one of the oldest surgical procedures known. Evidence has been found in prehistoric human remains, with the oldest trepanned skull found in a Neolithic burial site in France, believed to be over 7,000 years old. Cave paintings suggest Captain Caveman believed it would cure epileptic seizures, headaches and mental problems. The bone that was scraped away may have been worn as a piece of funky jewellery to ward off evil spirits. Evidence also shows trepanning was used after any nasty smack to the head, to remove shattered bits of skull and clean out any pools of blood. It’s thought basic slings, flints and clubs were used.

All Greek to us

Ancient Greek physician Hippocrates gave specific directions on trepanning. But it’s also thought to have been used by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, plus South American and African civilisations.

Today?

Treapnning: two surgeons give the thumbs up

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Very precise forms of trepanning, under medical supervision, are of course used by experienced surgeons in skull and eye surgery – although the term craniotomy is more likely to be used.

However, the odd person (VERY odd if you ask us!) believes in voluntary trepanning for their health… Famously,  Dutchman Bart Hughes has claimed it increases ‘brain blood volume’ and returns the patient to a childlike state of consciousness – because babies are born with a natural gap in their skull. To prove his, er, point, in 1965 he drilled a hole in his head with a dentist’s drill, as a publicity stunt. Afterwards he said he felt ‘as I felt before the age of 14’. So, think about how you felt as a 13-year-old…is this necessarily a good thing?!

There is also a British group who believe in this DIY surgery, saying it allows the brain more space and oxygen. The procedure has been considered for conditions such as Parkinson’s Disease.

In 2000, two men from Utah, US, were prosecuted for practising medicine without a licence after trepanning an English woman to ‘treat’ her chronic fatigue syndrome and depression… The procedure went wrong and the protective membrane around the woman’s brain was severed. She was rushed to Intensive Care to repair the damage – luckily, she survived…

NHS-funded blowholes?

Amanda Feilding, of Oxfordshire – Countess of Wemyss and March, wife of the land-owning 13th Earl, and a friend of the Royal Family – set up the Beckley Foundation, which, amongst other things, campaigns for scientific research into trepanning.

Self-trepanned with an electric drill, Ms Feilding stood in the 1979 and 1983 general elections, advocating NHS-funded trepanation.

She received 49 and 139 votes respectively.

Do not read while eating…

One modern advocate of trepanning describes the grisly process: ‘After some time, there was an ominous-sounding schlurp and the sound of bubbling. I drew the trepan out and the gurgling continued. It sounded like air bubbles running under the skull as they were pressed out. I looked at the trepan and there was a bit of bone in it. At last!’

Hmm – think we’ll stick to a couple of headache tablets, thanks!