Today's doctors sometimes treat pain by using low voltage electrical impulses to block pain signals from reaching the brain, a concept that was born in Ancient Rome. In 46 A.D., physician Scribonius Largus wrote in De Compositiones Medicae about using electric eels to generate similar electrical charges. The eels were used to treat patients with gout, a form of arthritis affecting the feet that can cause painful flare-ups lasting for days.
Largus had his patients place their feet in water with torpedo fish until their nervous systems were suitably scrambled and the pain subsided. This is comparable to today's use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, which is used to treat many types of pain. Back in Ancient Rome, though, it was more difficult to create a therapeutic amount of electrical treatment, as electric fish such as the torpedo, also known as the Pacific electric ray, are capable of emitting charges as high as 200 volts.
Shocking facts about fish, pain and gout:
- Some fish and eels have bundles of muscle fibers capable of creating and discharging electricity at different voltages hundreds of times per second, according to their need.
- Perhaps it's not surprising that Benjamin Franklin, who famously flew a kite during an electrical storm, was a big believer in this type of pain relief.
- Electricity can only blunt the painful symptoms of gout, not cure the disease. Gout is a form of inflammatory arthritis, caused by a buildup of uric acid, which can turn to urate crystals that compromise joints and lead to what is known as a gout flare-up.