Richard III’s Painful Scoliosis Treatments

By: The Scribe on Monday, April 22, 2013

Richard_III_of_EnglandAnyone who suffers from scoliosis knows that it can be a lot of work to fix, if that’s even possible. Modern medical advances have made it possible to correct scoliosis in many cases, but what about folks who lived in ancient times?

Although it wasn’t as long ago as, say, Pharaoh Akhenaten’s scoliosis problems, recent studies on the newly uncovered bones of King Richard III have revealed that not only did he suffer from the spine-curving condition, but he also may have undergone some incredibly painful medical treatments to try and straighten things out.

Previous work has showed that the condition likely set in during the King’s teen years, and researcher Mary Ann Lund of the University of Leicester’s School of English has learned about the types of treatments available for scoliosis during the 1400s.

While there isn’t exactly evidence on the bones to support the one treatment available to the nobility… that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. In an interview with LiveScience, Lund said that “it developed after the age of about 10 … so he probably would have been treated as an adolescent as well as during his adult life.”

Doctors in the 1400s believed that scoliosis (and many other medical issues) was caused by imbalanced humors in the body—and considering how severe Richard III’s scoliosis was, his treatment would have gone far beyond a simple ointment or two.

richard spineOne likely treatment was called traction, and yes, it operated on the same principle as the torture device known as the Rack. To treat scoliosis through traction, ropes were tied underneath the patient’s armpits and around the legs. Then then ropes were pulled at each end in order to stretch out the patient’s spine.

Then as part of long-term care, patients were encouraged to wear the equivalent of a modern back brace—such as a long piece of metal or wood along their spine.

Did the methods work? Evidently, determining that is impossible, but “it seems likely that the condition was painful and would have restricted his lung capacity,” says Lund.


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