Did the Ancient Egyptians Get Back Pain?

05 Dec 2011

Four our of five will suffer from back pain at some point in their lives. If 21st century life causes back pain, then perhaps people in the past suffered a lot less.

Many people get back pain these days. Four out of five people will suffer at some point in their lives and it is often put down to lack of exercise, obesity, sedentary work, computer and game console use, smoking, stress and poor lifting techniques as well as a host of modern lifestyle activities. If it is 21st century life that causes back pain then perhaps people in the past suffered a lot less.

But how do we know what civilizations experienced many centuries ago? It is hard enough to diagnose what is causing someone’s back pain when they are sitting in front of the chiropractor. X-rays and MRI scans often don’t show the true cause and only careful orthopaedic and neurological testing as well as thorough spinal palpation can show the likely joint or muscle responsible. So it is difficult to know whether people as far long ago as the Ancient Egyptians got back pain.

One clue that the Ancients might have suffered from what some call a modern affliction, is evidence from x-rays of Egyptian mummies. These images show clear signs of spinal degeneration or osteoarthritis which in itself doesn’t cause back pain it does at least mean that their spines were wearing out in much the same as ours do.

It is interesting to ponder what in the life of an Pharaoh might cause spinal wear and tear. Presumably the hard manual labour to build the pyramids was done by others. Entertainment would not have revolved around screen gadgets and reading a hieroglyph on a wall would have got around the modern sedentary lifestyle problem. Perhaps sitting on a stone throne has it’s own bony stresses. If so the Pharaohs could have learned from a subsequent king of Denmark a few centuries later who made his throne a horses saddle because he suffered from regular back pain and that was the only way he could get through a day without pain. We can see similar designs in some modern day stools.

We can see further clues about back pain in Ancient Egypt by looking at the medical treatments of the time. We know from the historical record that they used leaf extracts from the myrtle leaf to help with back ache as far back as 1500 BC. These extracts contain salicin which is an ingredient in modern day aspirin. Another more messy treatment that appears in the manuscripts is the application of meat and honey to a bad back. It probably didn’t do much for a bad back but should have perhaps been used on a barbecue. A more radical treatment for back pain was to drill a hole in the head to release the demons that were causing the affliction. It is a good job that one did not catch on and it seems that people long ago would go to extrordinary lengths to get rid of back so it must have been a significant problem in their society too.

Whilst it is tempting to scorn such ancient practices it worthwhile remembering that unnecessary and useless treatments have been used in modern medicine. It was standard practice until a few years ago to send a back pain patient to bed until they recovered. It was then found to make the the back weaker and make the long term problem worse. Fortunately things have moved on and bed rest is only usually recommended for a few days at most now.

Nowadays the health advisory group NICE recommend staying gently active, anti-inflammatory medication, exercise and manipulation as done by chiropractors and others to help with ordinary back pain. They also recommend acupuncture – so maybe the ancients had something after all.

By BCA Member, Matthew Bennett DC

Exe Chiropractic Clinic is located in central Exeter. Chiropractic is a safe, non-invasive treatment approach to musculoskeletal problems (lower back pain, neck pain, headaches). To book a consultation with a chiropractor call us on 01392 690200 or email us on info@exechiropractic.co.uk. We look forward to seeing you soon!

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