Asked by: Jane Needham, Manchester
While the use of anaesthesia dates back only to the early 19th century, the idea that before then patients just suffered is a myth. Doctors have been able to offer pain relief for thousands of years. Over 3500 years ago Egyptians used opium-based compounds (still the most potent source of pain relief). Physicians in ancient Greece regularly used willow bark, which contains salicylic acid (the active ingredient of aspirin) to treat pain, while the Romans used plants like mandrake and belladonna. But such herbal remedies had their dangers: too small a dose meant patients would still suffer pain, while large doses could trigger unconsciousness and death. Many patients also ended up addicted to the opium compounds. This led to the search for more precise ways of using such compounds, by identifying their active ingredients and giving carefully controlled doses to patients to prevent mishaps.