Old cures for new ills

[ The article covers hypnotherapy, acupuncture, massage and homeopathy. ]

Trace the chequered history of some of our favourite alternative health remedies


Hypnotherapy was invented by a Viennese doctor called Franz Anton Mesmer. He took his trance-inducing technique, which became known as mesmerism, to Paris in 1778 and set up shop claiming that he could employ it to cure people of a variety of ailments.
Dr Mesmer believed in an invisible fluid that floated around the body, a force a bit like magnetism, which had recently been discovered. One of his techniques involved asking clients (usually rich women) to grasp the metal handles of tubs full of water and iron-filings, which he said helped to channel this “mesmeric fluid”.
It wasn’t his medical claims that irritated the intellectual elite of France, but his reputed mental power over women. In those days, a male doctor was not allowed to examine an undressed female patient and the idea that Dr Mesmer could put his female patients into a suggestible trance was intolerable and he was eventually hounded from Paris in 1785.
However, by this time, word of mesmerism had spread to the rest of the world. The English physician James Esdaile was reported to have used it in India to remove a huge 47kg (103lb) tumour from a patient (who weighed only 52kg) without the need for anaesthetic.
Nevertheless, the medical establishment wasn’t convinced, and the technique had been tarnished by scandal. Several rich women brought legal cases against men, claiming that they had used mesmerism to seduce them or to hoodwink them into marriage.
Perhaps to escape its salacious reputation, mesmerism split into two types in the late 1800s. Some doctors believed that the trance-inducing technique was useful and renamed it hypnotherapy. The practice of mesmerism still continued but in a more light-hearted way as a popular after-dinner party trick. Entertainers put on shows in which members of the public would be mesmerised in front of an audience.
Both hypnotherapy and mesmerism survived into the 20th century, but dwindled in popularity. However, hypnotherapy enjoyed a resurgence in the 1950s when fresh research was conducted into its medical potential for treating anxieties and phobias. And it became increasingly popular in the 1960s, as people began to turn away from conventional medicine and look for alternative therapies.
Today there are more than 7,000 registered hypnotherapy practitioners, including some doctors and dentists. Practitioners have found hypnotherapy particularly useful for treating addictions, such as smoking.

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