Arabs were skilled in anaesthesia

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7087.1128a (Published 12 April 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1128
  1. M Al-Fallouji, Consultant gastrointestinal surgeona
  1. a Boston Pilgrim Hospital, Boston, Lincolnshire PE21 9QS

    Editor—Anthony John Carter's review of sedative plants skipped several centuries and did not mention the “Arabic anaesthetic sponge.”1 Opium infusion was known to Arab clinicians throughout the middle ages and was used commonly to relieve pain associated with inflammation or procedures such as tooth extraction and reduction of fractures. Poppy seeds were used in oral perioperative analgesic syrups or paste; their boiled solution was often used for inhalation.


    Arab clinicians used opium infusions throughout the middle ages


    Anaesthesia by inhalation was mentioned in R Burton's Arabian Nights, and Theodoric of Bologna (1206-98), whose name is associated with the soporific sponge, got his information from Arabic sources.2 The sponge was steeped in aromatics and soporifics and dried; when required it was moistened and applied to lips and nostrils. The Arabic innovation was to immerse the “anaesthetic sponge” in a boiled solution made of water with hashish (from Arabic hasheesh), opium (from Arabic afiun), c-hyoscine (from Arabic cit al huscin), and zo'an (Arabic for wheat infusion) acting as a carrier for active ingredients after water evaporation.

    Arabs in Andalusia were the pioneers of artificial ice making. Freezing or rubbing with ice was used for local anaesthesia in minor external operations. Abdominal surgery (laparotomy and caesarean section) was practised around 900-1000 ad and was dependent on detailed knowledge of anatomy, anaesthesia, antisepsis, and proper instruments.3


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