T is for Trepanning

Peter_Treveris_-_engraving_of_Trepanation_for_Handywarke_of_surgeri_1525I have never quite worked out why my entry on h2g2 about Trepanning received so much attention. For a while, I had the draft version of the article on this website and it easily accounted for the bulk of search engine traffic over any given year.

Humanity has always innovated in the strangest way, using all manner of experiences to guide advances in technology, medicine, and general understanding. I mean, why do we drink cow’s milk? It’s one of those things that always seems terribly odd to me. Who thought that tugging on the teats of a cow might be a good idea? I mean how did that work out on the first dozen attempts given the real possibility that the cow would take affront to the invasion?

The same goes for drilling a hole in your skull – that’s all kinds of strange when you think about it. Yes, you have this pounding sensation in your head, but the first thought wouldn’t be to let it out with something sharp, right? Those first attempts that led to fatal injury or brain damage – they didn’t put anyone off at all?

Don’t-Do-It-Yourself Pain Relief

Trepanation, or, variously, trephination, is derived from the Greek trypanon, meaning “borer”. The act of trepanation is basically the drilling of a hole in the skull for whatever purpose. There is evidence to suggest that the practice has been in use by humanity since pre-history. Skulls have been found in many archaeological digs throughout the world with precisely cut holes that appear to have been man-made and with evidence, in many instances, of bone regeneration. This bone regeneration supports the thinking that the individuals involved survived the procedure and the precision of the hole suggests that they are not the result of intrusions by sharp weapons.

Why A Hole In The Skull?

The reason why trepanning was originally practiced is something without a definitive answer. Without a doubt, there must have been some curiosity about what lay within the human skull and its function. Primitive thought placed great weight on supernatural forces, like evil spirits, so trepanning may have been a means to relieve illness, pain or insanity caused by these spiritual entities by forcing them out of the hole. Even today swellings and malign anomalies within the structure of the brain represent considerable problems for advanced medical science and technology; to a degree, the act of trepanning shows that primitive man possessed much more advanced treatment procedures than are commonly recognized today.

The Value And Act Of Trepanation

The basis of trepanning, in modern thinking, is to relieve pressure and swelling in the brain, but also to introduce more oxygen into the skull. The cranial bones are cut with a small cylindrical saw, called a trepan or trephine, equipped with a centre pin. The centre pin extends a short distance beyond the blade of the saw and is inserted first to prevent slippage. In modern surgery, a metal plate is generally used to cover the hole once the operation is complete.

Modern Views of Trepanation

Trepanning is not considered an advisable course of action by common medical science for anything except the serious cranial damage and brain swelling. With the dawning of enlightenment and higher technology less credence has been given to more apparently primitive medical techniques. However, there are many doctors around the world who still believe in the value of trepanning outside of emergency surgical procedures and also individuals who experiment with the technique, drilling holes in their heads on an amateur basis. The 1998 film ‘π’ (‘Pi’) features a self-trepanation scene where the troubled protagonist resolves to cure his debilitating headaches with a hole in the head made with an electric drill.

The introduction of increased levels of oxygen to the brain, apparently, provides a high or rush, which can be repeated and maintained, and may also heighten intelligence. The disadvantages of drilling holes in the head include possible damage to the cerebral membrane or complete, and unexpected, lobotomy.

Medical Disclaimer

It isn’t recommended that even the smallest experiments be attempted in this area of medical science without the direct intervention and advice of a qualified medical practitioner. As indicated the practice is not readily accepted in most parts of the world, so this should be discouragement enough for those considering trepanation as some form of quick fix solution to minor ills. Those who look to this technique for relief are normally in massive amounts of pain, even with the strong standard pain medication.

Please don’t try this at home!





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