Women have been called “hysterical” for “overreacting” to pain for thousands of years. But when you look back in history, these “hysteria” symptoms sound an awful lot like endometriosis, one of the most common gynecological diseases in women. It causes heavy periods, infertility and generalized pain.
“Whenever you go to history, you learn from history,” Nezhat explained. “As long as women have existed, most positively endometriosis was there.”
Over 4,000 years ago, ancient Egyptians painted women suffering with “suffocated uterus,” an affliction with endometriosis-like symptoms.
Relief depicting a scene of childbirth from the tomb of Scribonia Attica at the necropolis of Isola Sacra (Sacred Island) in Italy.
Around 400 B.C., Hippocrates was making a name for himself in ancient Greece as the father of medicine. According to Dr. Nezhat, Hippocratic authors connected the symptoms of pain, infertility and menstrual dysfunction and gave them a name: endometriosis. Just kidding! They gave them a name that makes women feel self-conscious to this day: hysteria.
Illustration of the works of Hippocrates by Joseph Kuhn Regnier.
Unfortunately, doctors tried some unconventional methods to treat these women. They prescribed concoctions made of male urine, tar water or castor oil. They placed leeches inside a patient’s uterus to suck up blood.
A woman prepares for treatment with leeches.
“They thought the uterus is suffocated, and if they suck the blood from the uterus, it will get better,” said Nezhat.
Women were hung upside down so their “wandering uterus” could find its way back to the correct position in the body.
A depiction of the ancient Greek practice of “succussion,” in which patients are bound to a ladder, turned upside down and shaken vigorously.
Because infertility and subfertility are common side effects of endometriosis, many women sought medical help to conceive.
“They accused these women of being nymphomaniacs because they thought maybe these people wanted to get pregnant and have lots of sex,” said Nezhat. Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France before the revolution, was one of the women accused of nymphomania for going to the doctor so often. She likely had endometriosis.
This engraving may show the secret meeting between Marie Antoinette and the Count of Mirabeau in the castle of Saint Cloud in the summer of 1790.
Women with endometriosis symptoms were also accused of being witches. Unable to have their own children, they may have looked covetously at pregnant women and babies, leading to the “witch” accusation. Many of these women were killed. As time progressed, endometriosis sufferers were considered unfit for society and tossed in mental institutions.
Depiction of witch burning from 1555.
Freud later studied hysteria, but “instead of looking for the cause of the pain,” according to Nezhat, he concluded it was all in his patients’ heads. But all along, it had a physical cause.
Sigmund Freud’s “Studies On Hysteria” was originally published in 1895.
Good thing all that is in the past, right? Well…
Nezhat points out that to this day, some physicians fail to recognize and diagnose endometriosis. On average, it takes women 10 years from the onset of their symptoms to get the correct diagnosis.
“Women have been suffering and are still suffering, and it is mainly because of the lack of information,” Nezhat said.
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