Headaches and cures in the Regency

Headaches and cures in the Regency

I was at the bakery the other day, writing. The lady who runs it, Viki, was chatting with me when I was on a break. (I do writing sprints … 20 minutes of writing followed by a five minute break, then repeat.)

As we were talking, the subject of headaches came up and she asked me how headaches were treated in Regency England. I told her laudanum was popular and willow bark tea was, as well. She made a joke about laudanum and we moved on.

That conversation got me thinking about it, though, and for my post this month, I decided to look into it.

The first site that showed up on my Google search for “headache treatments in Regency England” was this blog post written by author Geri Walton. I’ve said before that I’m always suspicious of blog posts, because they all seem to be worded identically, no matter the topic. It’s like everyone just regurgitates everyone else’s posts. However, Geri Walton has references listed at the bottom of her post, so I was able to look at some of her source material, which gives her legitimacy, in my opinion.

I think we all know that in the Regency, not much was understood about medicine in general, much less anything regarding the brain. The Walton article begins with a listing of what was then believed to cause headaches. I can tell you that one of them – atmospheric pressure – does indeed cause headaches. I know this because I suffer from rhinitis, both allergic and nonallergic. Nonallergic rhinitis, according to the Mayo Clinic website, is sometimes triggered by changes in the weather … and changes in the weather change the atmospheric pressure. Some of the other suspected causes in the Regency are, however, strange. “Bile in the blood” was one that made me shake my head.

Leech finders Courtesy of Jane Austen’s World website

But, on to treatment. The Walton article listed a whole host of things that were used or attempted to treat headaches. One of the most well-known, I think, is the use of leeches, otherwise known as bleeding or bloodletting. The physician did not have to use a leech, of course. He could use a scalpel to make a small incision in a patient’s vein. Thankfully, medicine has come a long way and we don’t need to worry about this horribly unsafe method anymore.

One interesting way of treating headaches back then was cutting a person’s hair off. Now, as a person whose hair falls to well below the waist (I can’t quite sit on it yet, but I do have to pull it over my shoulder when I use the necessary), I can tell you that hair does get heavy. My hair is thinner than a lot of people’s, except on the crown of my head, so I have not experienced pain of any kind. However, I have had friends in the past who have cut their much thicker long hair off because of head and/or neck pain. I believe the Regency folks weren’t so far off with this one.

Sometimes, a doctor might treat a headache by applying a substance that caused blisters. I have no words for this ….

Medical blistering Courtesy of https://www.geriwalton.com/medical-blistering-in-georgian-era/

Other treatments that don’t seem so off the wall included tonics, purging, and antispasmodics.

Purging is basically giving the patient something to make them empty their bowels. I suppose that made a weird sort of sense; I have often wondered if too much chocolate or other foods that I greatly enjoy but should not eat have caused some of my headaches, but I can find no websites that connect food to headaches. Even the nurse who gives me my allergy shots denies it’s possible. I suppose I must bow to her superior knowledge but I will forever be suspicious. 😉

Antispasmodics were generally herbal remedies like valerian and camphor that were believed to quiet spasms in the head, thereby getting rid of headaches, especially nervous ones. I know the brain is a muscle, so what if they were right and it does get cramps or spasms? I suspect that’s what happens when I get a headache because I can’t get a story to go the direction I want it to. Seriously.

At any rate, we use valerian now for sleep disorders, so I can see how it would help a headache. Sleep almost always eases my headaches, though it does not always get rid of them completely. So, even if their reasoning was wrong, clearly, the “medicine” worked.

Finally, we come to tonics. Tonics were often made of the bark of a tree called a cinchona, or of quinine. Cinchona is still used nowadays to make medicines for many illnesses, including colds, stomach issues, eye problems, and blood vessel issues. As with all non-chemical substances, the CDC and therefore doctors, say it needs more research before they can call it effective. They also warn that it slows clotting of the blood. This tells me why it was probably effective in the Regency for at least some headaches. Also, cinchona contains quinine. The use of quinine for malaria had not begun in the Regency, at least not in England, so it was helpful because it was an astringent.

Courtesy of https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/representations-of-drugs-in-19th-century-literature


If you have read through this incredibly long post, Thank You!! 😀 This was a small sampling of methods describe in the Walton blog post. What do you think of the methods used in Jane Austen’s day to cure headaches? Does it surprise you as much as it does me that anyone survived at all?  





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21 Responses to Headaches and cures in the Regency

  1. I also enjoyed the show “Victorian Pharmacy” that I found on Youtube. It has several episode and moves through the century so you can see the progression of what is available, and especially evolution of medical thought.
    They create “tablets” of “aspirin”, really salicylic acid (?).
    I enjoy learning about how headaches and other things were treated through the years, having headaches and migraines myself.

  2. This was an amazing post. Thanks for all your hard work finding these links and research. What do I think of them? Shudder. I am so thankful… I mean… thank you Lord… that I was NOT born during that time period. LA!!! I used to have headaches but they were mostly caused by tension and they disappeared when I retired. Imagine that. I did notice that after I ate something [never discovered the exact ingrediant], within a few hours I would get a headache [sensitive to light kind]. But then when I’d throw up, it would go away. I noticed it after my mother-in-law used a flavor packed in her pot of beans. To test the theory… the next time she fixed beans, I decided to try it again to see. I made sure I only ate homegrown foods and the flavored beans. She always had homegrown veggies so I knew they were OK and had never bothered me before. Sure enough within a few hours I was hugging the porcelain. There was something in that flavor packet that set me off. I also avoid artificial sweeteners. You know I’ve heard that medicinal leeches are good if you have a really bad bruise and swelling. I know it sounds awful but they have a purpose.

    !!! GROSS ALERT !!! Sorry if this is offensive STOP reading now if you don’t want to see this. Are you still there? OK, I’m talking about the use of maggots. I know but they only eat the dead flesh and not the healthy. Sounds awful but they help clean out the bad parts of a wound. END of Gross part.

    Everyone had really good suggestions. Great post, Zoe.

    • Thanks. 🙂 The maggots are definitely disgusting, but I’ve read historical fiction where they were used … mainly Westerns. LOL Love me some Lonesome Dove! 😀

  3. I have a wonderful picture of a bottle of: alcohol, morphine, marijuana, and cloroform. Ahh, the good old days. Also cocaine for toothache.

  4. The one thing that always grossed me out about any of the above was the leeches. Yeuck!!! I think I’d rather suffer on. How did anyone think bloodletting was a cure for anything. All it did was make the patient weaker. It’s a wonder anyone survived back then.
    Great post!

  5. Yes it does surprise me!lol The blister technique sounds painful not like a cure! I think I’ll stick to aspirin!lol

  6. having been a sufferer of migraines since age 8 , I still haven’t found something that works completely. but, If i take migraine meds with cola it seems to work faster! I never could pinpoint what causes my headaches though. thanks for the interesting post!

    • My mother suffered from migraines, too. Before triptans existed she used to take a combination of paracetamol, caffein (cola has caffein!) and acetylsalicylic acid (= Vitamin C). It was recommended for migraines for a long time because the combination enhances the effect of paracetamol. I tried strong black tea plus instant lemon juice (those with extra vitamin C) without paracetamol if there was only a slight headache – it worked!

    • I’d imagine it’s the caffeine in the cola, which will dilate blood vessels. I’m a huge fan of excedrin for headaches, which I get a lot but are not migraines, for this reason … it’s acetominophen, aspirin, and caffeine. Also great for period cramps, which I appear to not get anymore. :/

  7. Interesting information, Zoe.

    Having been treated very successfully with acupuncture for pain, including headaches, following a car crash, I am a great proponent of the treatment. We also have a holistic vet who has treated several of our kitties with acupuncture to great effect. According to my researches, acupuncture (and TCM, or traditional Chinese medicine) did not become popular in America until the 1970s following Richard Nixon’s visit to China. I’ve been unable to find similar information about its popularity in UK, altho’ I would imagine that in the 19th century it would have been accessible only to the very wealthy.

    So glad to see that you’re taking allergy shots. Being allergic myself — sometimes highly allergic — to a multitude of substances, I started taking allergy shots as a teenager. They helped a good deal, and when I stopped taking them when I was about 20 about half my remaining allergies simply disappeared. That’s also around the time when I stopped consuming almost all dairy, which also helped greatly to reduce or eliminate symptoms.

    Remedies I generally use for headaches include ice packs on my neck (again inaccessible in the Regency period except for the very wealthy), arnica (which was in common use well before then), and tea — yes, good ol’ Camellia sinensis usually does the trick thanks to its theanine and anti-oxidants. And certainly there was no shortage of tea in Regency England — even the less-affluent could purchase “recycled” tea leaves. There are also numerous herbal tisanes that are used — and no doubt *were* used — to treat headaches, and I often find that just sniffing mint, rosemary, or lemon balm (melissa) can cure a headache.

    Sorry this is so long, but I would like to make one other point. While leeches are rather repellent, there is some science behind the health benefits of giving blood. From what I understand, blood can become too thick and be a factor in disease. When one gives blood, or is simply “bled” (within reason), the body makes fresh new blood to replace it, and this is apparently a good and healthful thing.

    I found some links to blood-letting’s effect on health, as well as a list of herbal headache remedies:


    p.s. I wish I had the problem of too much, or too thick, hair! p.p.s. Aren’t we all really glad we do *not* live in the Regency era?

    • Thanks for your contribution. My favorite headache treatment is Excedrin. It’s a magic pill. LOL But if I don’t have any, I substitute caffeine and aspirin or tylenol. I don’t do acupuncture, for reasons I’ll not get into, but I’m glad it’s been helpful for you. 🙂

  8. Zoe,
    I think dwelling on all those medical treatments would be worth a lot of nightmares….
    I worked in small rivers some years back. My assistant found a medical leech, once – well, actually it found him and attatched itself to his arm… think of all those “delicate females” and those slimy creatures… ugh!
    However, I know how severe headaches (or migraine in my case) can become. If there weren’t those wonderful triptans I know I would be quite desperate by now! To reduce the amount of pain and the length of these attacks I even went to an acupuncturist. Quite barbaric, too, isn’t it? In addition I am afraid of needles, but the man simply worked around my no-needle-areas and it worked very, very well!
    I have long hair and if I divide it wrong for a regency-like updo I DO get a migraine.
    By the way: Chocolate WAS considered to trigger migraine for quite a long time. Today they say say that migraine triggers a need for chocolate.


    • I’ve only had one headache in my life that could be compared to a migraine, and it was awful. I don’t know how regular migraine sufferers can take it.

      I’m also afraid of needles. LOL But I won’t do acupuncture for other reasons. I hear it’s great, but I’m just not going there. LOL

      The hair … yes, how a person wears their hair can definitely cause a range of headaches. I’ve not tried any Regency updo’s, though I really should. I’ll have to be careful when I do. 🙂

      Chocolate is the answer to every problem. <3 LOL

  9. Interesting information, Zoe. Homeopathy was also introduced about 1814. Without more research I can’t tell you how extensive it was used. But I was surprised to find out that the ten most common diseases treated by homeopaths today are (in order of frequency) asthma, depression, otitis media, allergic rhinitis (hay fever), headache and migraine, neurotic disorders, non-specific allergy, dermatitis, arthritis and hypertension. So it’s possible that a homeopathic remedy may also have been used for headaches back in the Regency. Thank you for the post. 🙂

    • You know, when I had this already scheduled, I remembered I had seen nothing of willow bark tea. I assume that’s homeopathic. I saw a lady last year at a local festival whose granddaughter was having asthma symptoms and Mom had texted her and told her to get the girl some honey … a homeopathic solution to the problem, I guess. I know I’m more likely to use a neti pot (which I really struggled with at first because of its origins) than to reach for a decongestant. I have a ton of allergies … if it has leaves or fur, I’m allergic! Or, if it’s dust or smoke. LOL Anyway, thanks for the reminder!

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