, Gloucester, MA

January 11, 2013

Yesterday's torture devices, today's medical advances

On the Mend
Joe DiVincenzo

---- — It’s easy to marvel at our advances in medicine. From new knees to artificial hearts, there are thousands of interventions designed to improve and extend your life.

But have you ever stopped to think about how these procedures were developed? The origins of some of our current practices aren’t nearly as benevolent as you may like to think.

In fact, the roots of many of our treatment strategies for pain and the machines that assist in “executing” said prescriptions are derived from some of the most horrific torture devices of the last several thousand years.

So if you’re interested in learning about how the pain and suffering of your ancestors has benefited you, read on — but do so at your own risk.

The rack, originally used to detach the arms from the body, was widely popular throughout Europe, especially during the reign of queen Elizabeth I and other ill-fated monarchs. Securing the victim to a table with the arms extended overhead, a crank was turned slowly pulling the shoulders from their sockets until the sentence – or arms – had been “carried out.”

But there was probably a split second where the rack was therapeutic for people with low back pain. A small, longitudinal pull creates a spacing effect in the spine, thereby reducing pressure on the spinal discs and nerve roots. Today, we call it “traction” and it’s the single most popular form of spinal therapy available – just be wary if your therapist ties your hands up and turns a crank – we’ve gotten away from that practice over the last few centuries.

Burning and oiling were common occurrences for thieves and criminals right up until the colonial days of our country. Various chemical mediums were used, ranging from hot tar to oil from spicy peppers. The oils were distributed to areas of the body sensitive enough to obtain a confession or to exact a punishment — and they usually did just that.

Interestingly, many prisoners — especially repeat offenders — preferred the oil from peppers. They stated that after a while, the intense heat from the pepper would cause a numbing of the nerves, making them impervious to further torture in that area. Presently, impoverished countries such as Paraguay regularly use pepper oils and other inexpensive substances as alternatives to unaffordable surgical anesthetics. Primitive, yes. Effective? Also, yes.

Electric eels were used on prisoners and enemies of warring tribes in the Amazon right up and through the late 19th century. Capable of delivering up to 500 volts at a time and possibly killing a human in a single shock, what doesn’t kill you certainly will hurt more than you can imagine.

As mentioned though, eel shocks weren’t always fatal. After a while, a few of the captured indigenous wouldn’t respond to further zaps. Repeated doses of electricity increase the threshold for painful nerve stimulation, thus requiring more amperage in order to cause a stimulus or change in the body. Electrical stimulation machines are routinely utilized in both physical therapy and chiropractic clinics alike help to block the transmission of painful electrical impulses by nerves of damaged tissue. They are some of the most critical pieces of equipment in managing pain without medication.

Neither savage nor wise, the times that we live in now can only be described as evolving. Who knows, in 500 years, maybe researchers will create a type of cigarette that cures cancer when smoked.

Gloucester resident Joe DiVincenzo is a physical therapist and clinical specialist in manual therapy. He writes “On the Mend” weekly. Questions may be submitted by email to