A Brief History of Headaches

Headaches and migraines are nothing new — history suggests that ancient civilizations experienced headache pain as far back as 7000 BC. And from what we know, our ancestors were willing to try anything to get rid of the excruciating pain of headaches and migraines!

Ancient Remedies

The earliest documented headaches were thought to be signs of evil spirits and demons. Ancient populations had a wide range of creative remedies to “release the demons” and relieve headache symptoms. These remedies included the following:

  1. Drilling, sawing or scraping a hole in the skull (a practice called trepanation)
  2. Putting a dead mole on the head
  3. Burning the head
  4. Tying a clay crocodile figurine with grain in its mouth to the head with a piece of linen containing the names of gods believed to cure headaches
  5. Bathing with electric eels
  6. Applying leeches


The “Father of Medicine,” Hippocrates, had some interesting theories about migraines in 400 BC. For example, he believed that headaches were associated with certain physical activities like exercise and sexual intercourse. Hippocrates also linked migraines to digestive problems, and believed vomiting could help relieve headache pain.

The Middle Ages

One of the earliest migraine sufferers to leave detailed clues about her experiences was a medieval nun and mystic named Hildegard of Bingen. She wrote texts and drew pictures to document “visions” she thought were glimpses of the divine; but more modern interpretations suggest that these visions were actually auras associated with migraines.

In her time, headache pain was treated by applying an opium and vinegar solution to the skull. It is believed that the vinegar opened the pores of the scalp to allow for better absorption of the opium.

The Scientific Era

The scientific revolution that began in the 16th century brought about rapid advances in theories about headaches and migraines.

Thomas Willis, considered to be the founder of clinical neuroscience, was the first to suggest that headaches were caused by the dilation of the blood vessels. Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin, backed up this claim. In the 18th century, he put headache patients in centrifuges to force blood from their heads to their feet.

Edward Liveing, who published the first major written work about migraines in 1873, disagreed, instead proposing that a migraine was a brain dysfunction caused by an overactive central nervous system.

The 20th Century

Harold Wolffe was the first to study headaches in a modern laboratory setting, in the 1930s. His experiments supported the theory of headaches being caused by vascular dilation.

Where Are We Now?

The causes and treatments of headaches and migraines continue to be an area of interest for many researchers. Thankfully, modern medicine provides more appealing headache remedies than drilling holes in the skull or putting dead animals on the head.

To learn about the ways that Dr. Ivan Stein can provide significant relief from headaches, please call or email the Headache & TMJ Center of New Jersey today.