Sunday, February 16, 2014

Civil War Bloodletting

By Glenna R. Schroeder-Lein

A patient suffering from an infectious illness characterized by a high fever, a rapid pulse, and delirium was considered to have an inflammation caused by congestion of the blood vessels and excited tissues. In the terminology of the time this was called a "sthenic" disease. The category included such illnesses as typhoid fever and pneumonia.

Doctors believed that the way to reduce the inflammation was by depleting the fluids. This could be done through bloodletting by cutting a vein or an artery or, less drastically, by using leeches to suck a smaller amount of blood. Bleeding was practiced infrequently by the time of the Civil War. Only four instances were recorded in "The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion".

Depletion could also be achieved by the use of "counter-irritants". These substances and procedures were supposed to provide a sort of distraction for the body by drawing blood to the surface of the skin and thus relieving the inflammation. Cupping consisted of heating a glass or metal cup and placing it on the skin--for example, on the chest or back of a pneumonia patient. As the glass or metal cooled, it pulled the patient's skin into the cup, creating a painful irritation. Blistering could be achieved by mustard plasters, poultices, or specific substances applied to the part to be irritated.

Although counter-irritants did not cure any illnesses, they continued to be used into the twentieth century.

From: "The Encyclopedia of Civil War Medicine"


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