How Did Hippocrates Diagnose Asthma?
Early history of asthma diagnosis
Documents from ancient China and Egypt describe asthma-like symptoms. In 800 B.C., Homer was the first to use the term asthma in the Iliad. Asthma was a Greek term meaning short, panting breaths. Homer used it to describe the feeling of shortness of breath, such as after running a long distance.
About 400 years later, Hippocrates defined the disease asthma for the medical community. He defined dyspnea as feeling short of breath. Basically, dyspnea means you feel like you can’t catch your breath. Like, if you ran and got short of breath, you’d feel dyspnea.
He defined asthma as severe shortness of breath. Like, it’s dyspnea that is always there. Or, dyspnea that comes and goes with the seasons. Or, dyspnea that comes and goes with the flow of the winds. Surely, he did not know about pollen blowing in the wind. But, Hippocrates did recognize the wind as causing diseases like asthma.
Smart man he was.
Hippocrates loved to ask questions. He loved to assess his patient’s too. He might even have placed his ear against your chest to listen to your lung sounds. But, that was about all it took to diagnose asthma.
So, basically, if you were short of breath, you were diagnosed with asthma. It didn't’ matter the cause. There was no test, other than, maybe, a few test questions. Are you coughing? Are you producing phlegm?
The role of "phlegm" in asthma diagnosis
Hippocrates loved phlegm. He believed good health was when you had a balance of the four humors. The humors are bodily fluids. The four humors included phlegm, yellow bile, black bile, and blood. He believed phlegm was created in the brain. When in abundance, it caused epilepsy.
Here's the interesting part. Hippocrates believed, when in abundance, phlegm also flowed to the lungs. It caused epilepsy of the lungs. See, even Hippocrates, over 2,400 years ago, saw asthma as airway spasms. I think that's pretty neat.
The treatment was anything to decrease phlegm. Hippocrates might prescribe a glass of wine, a gentle massage, or inhaling some herbs.
If you were having a good asthma day, he’d recommend eating a healthy diet, exercise, plenty of sleep, and taking a bath. These were all ways of keeping the humors in balance. This was how asthma was prevented. This was your ancient version of asthma controller medicine.
Asthma was not considered a deadly disease. In fact, as recently as 1901, Dr. Henry Osler quipped, “Asthmatics pant to old age.”
For the most part, asthma was considered more of an annoyance. Chances are if you had an asthma attack, you just dealt with it. If you were lucky, it only lasted a short time.
If you were really lucky, you had access to a doctor like Hippocrates. Then you’d be diagnosed with asthma. Surely you don't want to have asthma. But, a proper diagnosis means you get prescribed remedies.
Back then, these remedies didn't give you much relief. But, they did give you hope, which might calm you down. Back then, hope was the best remedy of all.
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