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A history of Western pain management

Posted on 05-31-2016 Posted in Medicine, Substance Abuse - 0 Comments

It’s no great mystery that pain is a part of life. While key advances in pain management have yielded longer and full lives for many chronic sufferers, some pain relief treatments have morphed into potentially fatal vices. The following is an account of how Western medicine has dealt with pain.

Early history

The first instance of documented anesthetics actually occurred in the East, when Hua T’o, a Chinese surgeon during the latter part of the Han Dynasty, used anesthetics during surgery. He also used acupuncture needles successfully for chronic migraines.

The West did not catch on so fast. The migraine sufferer of the Middle Ages was victim to treatments including witchcraft, blood-letting and garlic implanted into an incision into the temple. Opium and vinegar solutions were also applied locally.

Nitrous oxide was first synthesized in the late 1700s by Joseph Priestly – one of Britain’s foremost chemists. Almost 30 years later, Humphry Davy successfully tried it on himself and patients. He and his test subjects soon became hooked on the gas that made one laugh away the pain.


By 1860, nitrous oxide gas was used regularly in dental surgery and gradually in general surgery.

In her book “The Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World,” Stephanie J. Snow, Ph.D., describes a shift in how the West viewed pain during this century.

She says pain was once universally understood as the body’s safety net, a sign of life. If a patient cried out or tensed, it signaled the body was responding and fighting to thrive. Anesthetics were first thought to suppress vitality, but a moral imperative of self-control began to take over in the West. Nitrous oxide, chloroform, ether and now opiates became integral to pain management.


The 20th century was an age of drug-related federal acts, largely focused on establishing bureau oversight, trade, manufacturing, profit and prescription boundaries on natural and synthetic pain management substances.

In 1938, the first migraine medication was adopted in the U.S. It became understood that migraines dilate the brains’ blood cells. Newly proffered ergotamine tart was discovered to cause vasoconstriction. Side effects included vomiting, nausea and a possibility of drug dependence.

The 1960s through the 1990s saw exponential increases in recreational use of pain management drugs. Substance abuse fads included:

  • “Hippy crack” or “whippets” – misuse of nitrous oxide
  • “Luding” – abuse of sedative Methaqualone, more recognized under its brand name: Quaaludes
  • “Grass” or “weed” – marijuana recreational use
  • Painkiller OxyContin abuse

According to an article in the New Yorker, Pharmaceutical companies capitalized on pain management and executed a few pivotal campaigns to market to hospitals and the layman. Acknowledgement of pain resurfaced as this new fifth vital sign, and pain prescription quickly went from “whether” a patient needed it to “how much” does the patient need.

Triptans such as Imitrex emerged in the 1990s for acute treatment of migraines.

In 1996, California became the first state to authorize chronic pain patients and their caregivers to possess and grow cannabis herb for patients’ personal medical use.


As heroin and prescription painkiller addiction swells to epidemic volumes, the Federal Drug Administration has approved various treatments to address widespread addictions to painkillers. This includes Suboxone, and several buprenorphine formats – most recently the Probuphine implant.

May 2016 has been a big month for painkiller addiction treatment. In addition to FDA approval of the opioid agonist implant, congress approved the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act (CARA) plus 18 similar bills targeted toward creation of grant programs addressing addiction prevention, education and enforcement.

Numbing mental pain

Often rehabilitation for addiction doesn’t breed lasting recovery because it only addresses the obvious issue. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 53 percent of substance abusers also have at least one mental illness. The Sovereign Health Group understands holistic recovery only works when it is tailored to the individual and inclusive of his or her mental and emotional damage. Call our 24/7 helpline to learn about our dual diagnosis treatment.

About the author

Sovereign Health Group staff writer Kristin Currin-Sheehan is a mindful spirit swimming in metaphysical pools with faith as her compass. Her cover: a 30s-something Cinderella breadwinner of an all-sport blended family. Her repertoire includes writing poetry, lifestyle articles and TV news; editing, radio production and on-camera reporting. For more information and other inquiries about this media, contact the author at

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