Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/April 1884/The Remedies of Nature XI
By FELIX L. OSWALD, M. D.
ANÆSTHETICS.—The inductive study of Nature has often proved the shortest way to discoveries which other methods can reach only by a circuitous route. The ancient Greeks, recognizing the significance of the fact that malarial complaints vanish at the approach of winter, cured their fever-patients by refrigeration, and this century of research will perhaps close before some experimenting Pasteur stumbles upon the fact that the proximate cause of ague and yellow fever can be traced to the agency of microscopic parasites whose development may be arrested by the influence of a low temperature. More than two thousand years ago the movement-cure, the fasting-cure, and other reactions against the baneful tendencies of the drug-delusion, were anticipated by the school of the natural philosopher Asclepiades.
The principle of the best natural anæsthetic, too, was practically applied, if not theoretically understood, by our rude ancestors. No one who has watched the contest of a pair of rough-and-tumble fighters— biped or quadruped—or participated in a scuffle of that sort, can doubt that the excitement of the fight temporarily blunts the feeling of pain. Count Ranzau, the "Streit-Hans"—"Rowdy Jack," as his comrades used to call him—once received three dagger-stabs before he knew that he was wounded at all. Soldiers, storming a battery, have often suddenly broken down from the effects of wounds which they had either not felt, or suspected only from a growing feeling of exhaustion. Olaf Rygh, the Norwegian Herodotus, tells us that, when the old Baresarks felt the approach of their end, they robbed death of its sting by drifting out to sea in a scuttled or burning boat, and thus expired, "screaming the wild battle-songs of their tribe." The Roman gladiators shouted and laughed aloud while their wounds were being dressed. A scalded child sobs and gasps for a therapeutical purpose: instinct teaches it the readiest way to benumb the feeling of pain. The physiological rationale of all this is that rapid breathing is an anæsthetic. In a paper read before the Philadelphia Medical Society, May 12, 1880, Dr. W. A. Bon will ascribes that effect to the influence of the surplus of oxygen which is thus forced upon the lungs, just as by the inhalation of nitrous-oxide gas (which is composed of the same elements as common air, but with a larger proportion of oxygen), and mentions a large variety of cases in his own practice where rapid breathing produced all the essential effects of a chemical pain-obtunder, without appreciably diminishing the consciousness of the patient. Persons who object to the use of chloroform (perhaps from an instinctive dread that in their case the ether-slumber might prove a sleep that knows no waking), can benumb their nerves during the progress of a surgical operation by gasping as deeply and as rapidly as possible. "One of the most marked proofs of its efficacy," says Dr. Bonwill, "was the case of a boy of eleven years of age for whom I had to extract the upper and lower first permanent molars on both sides. He breathed rapidly for nearly a minute, when I removed in about twenty seconds all four of the teeth. He declared there was no pain, and we needed no such assertion, for there was not the slightest indication that he was undergoing a severe operation."
The administration of chloroform often produces distressing after-effects, nausea and sick-headaches, that sometimes continue for days together; and I remember two instances in the records of a French military hospital where it resulted fatally in the case of patients who had in vain protested and offered to forego the benefits of the anæsthetic—perhaps actually from an instinctive consciousness of some constitutional peculiarity which in their case increased the risks of its use. Ether-spray, on the other hand, is a legitimate application of the principle that cold benumbs the feeling of pain. Death by freezing is preceded by an absolute anæsthesia; and the painfulness of bruises, wasp-stings, etc., can be diminished by the topical application of an ice-poultice.
Apoplexy.—The proximate cause of apoplexy is due to a congestion of the cerebral blood-vessels, induced by alcoholism, dietetic excesses, combined with the influence of sedentary habits. Consciousness, at least, can generally be restored by lessening the tendency of the circulation toward the head. The patient should be propped up in a sitting posture, with his head erect, his neck bared, and his temples and occiput moistened with cold water, while friction or a warm foot-bath should determine the circulation toward the extremities. Open every window of the sick-room, and, after the patient has sufficiently recovered to sit up in his bed, direct him to turn his face toward the cool draught, and now and then cool his temples with a cataplasm of crushed ice. For the first twenty-four hours let him abstain from all solid food.
Persons with an apoplectic diathesis should adopt a frugal and aperient diet, and avoid prolonged sedentary occupations, especially in a heated room. They should also avoid superfluous bedclothing, and open their bedroom-windows in all but the stormiest nights. The feet, however, ought to be kept warm under all circumstances. Plethoric gourmands ought at least to renounce late suppers and alcoholic stimulants.
Burns and Scalds.—Loose cotton, slightly moistened with linseed-oil, has an almost magical effect in relieving the pain of severe burns. When inflammation has supervened, the feverish condition of the patient requires cooling ablutions and the free use of ice-water, both topically and as a sedative beverage. Slight burns can be treated with any emollient application, and a piece of common court-plaster is sufficient to protect the sore till a new skin has formed under the blister.
Chilblains.—The effect of frost-bites is often aggravated by a too sudden, change of temperature, or rather by the application of the wrong kind of caloric. The restoring warmth should come from within rather than from without. It is not necessary to scrape a frost-bitten person with icicles, after the Russian plan; friction of any kind above or around the affected part will restore, as far as possible, the suspended circulation of the blood, and thus initiate the remedial functions of Nature. Deep foot-sores should be bandaged with linen rags and clean, warm tallow.
Dropsy.—It is a suggestive fact that the prevalence of dropsy has decreased since bleeding has gone out of fashion. There was a time when venesection was resorted to in nine out of ten kinds of diseases, and at that time a complaint which in its chronic form appears now almost only as a consequence of outrageous dietetic abuses was nearly as frequent as consumption. Bleeding impoverishes the blood, and dropsy, in any of its forms, can nearly always be traced to a depravation of the humors by unwholesome food or drink, or a disorder of the blood-making organs. As a symptomatic complaint, for instance, dropsy frequently appears in the last stage of pulmonary consumption, when the wasted lungs have become unable to fulfill the chief purpose of respiration. Next to the alcohol-habit, the habitual breathing of impure air is the present main cause of dropsy, for air is gaseous food, and a sufficient supply of oxygen a chief preliminary in the conditions of the blood-making process. Malarial diseases likewise impoverish the blood by a direct process of disintegration; and dropsy appears as an occasional after-effect of a long-continued ague. Remedies: Mountain-air, a light but nourishing diet, and strict abstinence from alcoholic stimulants.
Emetics.—Tepid water is a prompt, and the most harmless, emetic. In urgent cases (poisonings, etc.) add a modicum of white mustard (Sinapis alba), and tickle the fauces with the wing-feather of a pigeon, or any similar object. Excessive vomiting can be checked by stimulating applications to the pit of the stomach and the extremities.
Epilepsy.—Epilepsy, or the falling-sickness, is a complication of nervous derangements, and results more frequently from sexual excesses than from all other causes combined. In young children, however, epilepsy is sometimes a consequence of teething-difficulties, of acidity in the stomach, and of worms, and in such cases can be readily cured by a change of regimen, or, in malignant cases, by a protracted fast. For adults, strict continence and out-door exercise is the best prophylactic. Excessive heat, however, should be carefully guarded against, as well as all exciting passions.
Excoriation.—Infants are apt to become "galled" in particular parts of their bodies, about the groins, the lower part of the neck, and under the arms especially in consequence of the condemnable practice of tight swaddling. To dry up such sores, "galling-plasters" (acetate of lead, etc.) often lead to worse complications, and the best remedy is cleanliness, and fine lint, smeared with spermaceti-ointment or warm tallow.
Fainting-Fits, or Syncope.—Syncope, or "fainting," "Ohnmacht," "Desmayo" as three nations have called it with a correct appreciation of its chief cause, as distinct from that of apoplexy and convulsions, results from a general deficiency of vital strength. Cold water, applied to the neck, the feet, and the palms of the hands, by means of a bathing-brush, is the best restorative. In severe cases inflation of the lungs by mechanical means has often proved effective. Dr. Engleman mentions the case of a lady in child-bed, who, "after being happily delivered, suddenly fainted and lay upward of a quarter of an hour apparently dead. A physician had been sent for; her own maid, in the mean while, being out of patience at his delay, attempted to assist her herself, and, extending herself upon her mistress, applied her mouth to hers, blew in as much breath as she possibly could, and in a very short time the exhausted lady awakened as out of a deep slumber, when, proper things being given her, she soon recovered. The maid being asked how she came to think of this expedient, said she had once seen it practiced by a midwife with the happiest effect."
A little stream of water falling from a height on the face and neck, the irritation of the olfactory nerves by means of snuff or pungent smells (burned pepper, etc.), the motion of a rumbling cart, have now and then sufficed to restore suspended animation. Persons subject to fainting-fits can use no better prophylactic than gymnastics in winter, and cold baths and pedestrian excursions in summer-time.
Febrile Affections.—In all disorders of a malarial and typhoid character, as well as in scarlet fever, measles, small-pox, and epidemic erysipelas, refrigeration is more efficacious than any medicine. In several zymotic diseases, besides cholera and yellow fever, the action of antiseptic drugs is annulled by the inversion of the digestive process: the chyle is forced back upon the stomach, and, mingled with the red corpuscles of the disintegrated blood, is voided in that discharge of cruor known as the black-vomit. Bleeding, instead of reducing the virulence of the fever, is apt to exhaust the little remaining strength of the patient. Lord Byron, for instance, was bled to death as surely as if the surgeon had cut his throat.
Gout.—A paroxysm of this dread penalty of idleness and intemperance is preceded by certain characteristic symptoms—lassitude, eructations, a dull headache, involuntary tears, a shivering sensation about the groins and thighs. If the lassitude has not yet taken the form of an unconquerable lethargy, the patient may obviate the crisis of his affection by severe and unremitting physical exercise, a prophylactic which, though doubly grievous in a debilitated condition, is incomparably preferable to the hellish alternative. I knew an old army officer who kept a spade in his bedroom, and, at the slightest premonitory symptoms, fell to work upon a sandy hill-side, and once dug a deep trench of forty-five feet in a single night, and toward morning staggered to his quarters and had barely time to reach his bed before he sank down in a deliquium of exhaustion, and awakened late in the afternoon as from a fainting-fit, with sore knees and sorer hands, but without a trace of the gout from which his compact with the powers of darkness proved to have respited him for a full month. The racking pain can be somewhat relieved by such counter-irritants as blisters, violent friction with hot flannel, etc., or actual cautery and the topical application of opiates. The experiments of sixteen carnivorous and alcohol-drinking nations have revealed dozens of similar palliatives, but only two radical remedies—frugality and persistent exercise.
Headache.—Chronic headache is generally a symptom of disordered digestion. To attempt the suppression of the effect while the cause remains can bring only temporary relief, or even increases the subsequent malignity of the disorder. Strong black tea may thus act as a charm for a day or so; but with the next morning the trouble not only returns, but returns aggravated by the supposed remedy, for chronic headache has no more potent single cause than the habitual use of narcotic drinks. A frugal, non-stimulating regimen, on the other hand, brings help more slowly but permanently, unless the patient abuses the restored vigor of his digestive organs. Acute headaches can generally be traced to influences which tend to obstruct the free circulation of the blood—tight clothing, coldness of the extremities, oppressive atmospheric conditions, etc.—and can be cured only by a direct removal of the cause. As a symptomatic result of a vitiated state of the humors, as in scrofula and venereal diseases, headaches that defy all medicine often yield to a grape-cure.
Heart-burn, or Cardialgia.—Both words are misnomers, the seat of the pain being the pit of the stomach, and the cause gastric acidity; remedies—fasting and "passive exercise," a ride in a jolting cart, kneading of the abdomen, etc.
Hypochondria, Chronic Melancholy, Spleen.—Robert Burton, in his "Anatomy of Melancholy," enumerates some six thousand causes of chronic despondency, and about as many different remedies, of which only six or seven are apt to afford permanent relief: frugality, temperance, early rising, life with a rational object (altruistic, if egotism palls), constructive exercise in the open air, a sunny climate, and social sunshine—the company of children and optimists.
Insomnia.—The proximate cause of sleeplessness is plethora of the cerebral blood-vessels, and a palliative cure can be effected by anything that lessens the tendency of the circulation toward the head. But a permanent cure may require time and patience. By night-studies brain-workers sometimes contract chronic insomnia in that worst form which finds relief only in the stupor of a low fever, alternating with consecutive days of nervous headaches. Reforming topers often have to pass through the same ordeal, before the deranged nervous system can be restored to its normal condition. Fresh air, especially of a low temperature, pedestrian exercise, and an aperient diet, are the best natural remedies. Under no circumstances should sleeplessness be overcome by narcotics. An opium torpor can not fulfill the functions of refreshing sleep; we might as well benumb the patient by a whack on the skull.
Jaundice.—Jaundice and chlorosis are kindred affections, and the yellow tinge of the skin is often in both cases due to an impoverished state of the blood—especially a deficiency in the proportion of the red blood-corpuscles—rather than to a diffusion of bilious secrtions. Jaundice, as a consequence of obstinate agues, is evidently the result of a catalytic process which disintegrates the constituent parts of the blood. The bite of poisonous animals has often a similar effect. The most frequent predisposing cause, however, is want of sunlight and out-door exercise. Jaundice and chronic melancholy are often concomitant affections, and both a penalty of our dreary, sedentary modes of life. The ancients, indeed, ascribed both complaints to the same cause, for melancholy is derived from a word which means literally "atrabilious," or black-biled. But the truth seems to be that functional disorders of the liver are the result rather than the cause of a general torpor of the vital process. Remedy outdoor sports, combined with as much fun and sunshine as possible. Alcoholic jaundice-cures may restore the ruddiness of the complexion by keeping the system under the influence of a stimulant fever; but we might as well congratulate ourselves on the return of health when pulmonary affections mimic its color with their hectic glow.
Mental Disorders.—The Lalita Vistara says that on the day when Buddha, the savior, was born, all the sick regained their health and the insane their memory. Insanity might, indeed, be defined as a partial derangement or suspension of the faculty of recollection. Nature takes that method of obliterating the memory of impressions which the soul is unable to bear, and thus preserves life at the expense of its intellectual continuity. Lunatics are generally monomaniacs; their judgment may be sound in many respects, but, at the mention of a special topic, betrays the partial eclipse of its light. It may be possible that people have been killed by the sudden announcement of good news, but, for one person who has lost his reason from an excess of joy, millions have lost it from an excess of sorrow—a crushing calamity, or the oppressive and at last unbearable weight of the dreariness, the soul-stifling tedium of modern life in many of its phases. The sick soul may have stilled its hunger with a long-hoarded hope, till the evident exhaustion of that hoard leaves only the alternative of despair or refuge in the Lethe of dementation. Where insanity is at all curable it can be cured by the removal of its chief cause—sorrow; and the best remedies are kindness, mirth, and a pleasant occupation. In the middle ages, when both lunacy and the love of earthly happiness were ascribed to the machinations of the devil, lunatics were chained and horsewhipped for the double benefit of their souls, and with results which almost justified the demon hypothesis. Breughel's best illustrations for Dante's hell were made after studies in an Austrian mad-house. The extreme antithesis of such infernos is perhaps the State Lunatic Asylum at Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where the shadow of gloom has been so successfully banished that the happiest results of the cure have almost been anticipated by its methods: the restoration of reason itself could hardly give the patients an additional reason for being happy. They have a park, a flower-garden, and a pet nursery of their own; they have books and music, gymnasia, bathrooms, and amateur workshops. Wherever their road leads, they can travel it in sunshine, even on hobby-back if they choose, for they have a philosophical weekly of their own, with full permission to explain the revelation of St. John.
Myopia—short-sightedness, and far-sightedness (presbyopia), were formerly regarded as absolutely incurable affections, because they were evidently not amenable to the influence of any known drug. But "drug" and "remedy" have at last ceased to be synonymous terms; and, though constitutional defects of the eye may preclude the possibility of a complete cure, there is no doubt that those defects can be modified by a judicious treatment, especially by a mode of life tending to restore the general vigor of the system, by out-door exercise, and by rambles in green, sunny woods, for the colors of the summer forest are as beneficial to the eye as its atmosphere to the lungs. Weak eyes can be strengthened by gradually exercising the capacity of the optic nerve, scrutinizing small objects, first at a moderate and by-and-by at a greater distance, but withal guarding against a fatiguing effort of the eye.
Pimples.—The best cosmetic is a grape-cure, i.e., a frugal, saccharine, and sub-acid diet, combined with out-door exercise in the bracing air of a highland country.
Rheumatism.—Rheumatism, like gout, is a consequence of dietetic abuses. Counter-irritants, hot baths, etc., can effect a brief respite, but the only permanent specific is fasting. Before the end of the second day a hunger-cure benumbs the pain; the organism, on being obliged to feed upon its own tissues, seems to undergo a process of renovation which alone can reach the root of the complaint. Exercise and great abstemiousness will prevent a relapse.
Scrofula.—A scrofulous taint is in some cases hereditary, and yields only to years of dietetic reform, but, on the whole, there is no more perfectly curable disease. In all but its most malignant forms it yields readily to the influence of pure air and pure food—out-door life, and a wholesome, vegetable diet. Skin-cleaning nostrums only change the form of the disease by driving it from the surface to the interior of the body.
Toothache.—The extraction of every unsound tooth and the insertion of a "new set" would certainly remove, in ipsa radice, the seat, if not the cause, of the evil. But the trouble is, that the function of proper mastication is an indispensable preliminary of digestion, and that for practical efficacy the last stump of a natural tooth is infinitely preferable to the best artificial substitute. The best plan would, therefore, be to let the stumps remain, and get rid of the pain, and the latter end can be attained by a slow but infallible method. Within half a year after the change of regimen, absolute abstinence from hot drinks (especially boiling hot, sweet tea) and a very sparing use of animal food will benumb the sensitiveness of the irritated nerves. I knew an old-Mestizo who had learned to chew apples with his bare gums, but only after necessity had reduced him to a frugal regimen. A saccharine diet in the form of sweet ripe fruit has certainly nothing to do with the decay of the teeth, and it is a suggestive fact that toothache is almost exclusively an affliction of the northern nations.
Warts and Corns.—The predisposing cause of warts is unknown, and the popular remedies are rarely permanent. I have known warts to reappear after they had been thoroughly removed by the use of corrosive acids. The popular belief that they "spread" if the operation involves bleeding seems not to be wholly unfounded, and large warts can be more effectually cured by means of a tight ligature that gradually deadens the tissue. Warts on the upper side of the fingers can generally be atrophied by exerting a long-continued strain upon the adjoining muscles, as in holding up a heavy weight, or seizing the rings of a grapple-swing and dangling by one hand as long as the fingers can support the strain. A callous skin is thus formed under the wart, and before long the excrescence disappears. Corns are entirely owing to the pressure of tight shoes, and can be cured by the use of more commodious foot-wear. To suppress the symptom, while the cause remains, is of little avail, and, before a chiropodist could keep his promise to "remove corns with the root," he would have to eradicate the folly of heeding the mandates of fashion rather than the appeals of Nature.