To modern Western sensibilities, the practice of bloodletting is barbaric and counterintuitive. Yet, for many centuries, bloodletting, or phlebotomy as Western medicine knows it, enjoyed a lengthy period of popularity in many cultures. Though uncommon as a cure in modern medicine, it still finds uses in the treatment of some rare conditions and for the removal of blood for diagnostic tests.
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Ancient Greek physicians strongly believed in the usefulness of phlebotomy. Like many medicinal practices, physicians employed bloodletting in the name of balance. Black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood were generally understood to be the four basic substances of the body, and each needed to maintain the correct balance in order for the patient to remain healthy. If blood caused the imbalance, bloodletting was a usual prescription for a wide variety of ailments.
The red and white spiral symbol hearkens back to the tonsorial profession's other traditional practice: drawing blood. Throughout the medieval period in Europe, barbers worked as specialists in phlebotomy, and visitors often had blood removed as a routine procedure.
Phlebotomy as a Cure-All
The belief that bloodletting cured most, if not all, illnesses formed a widespread myth of the practice until the late 1800s. Physicians treated virtually every aliment, even those principally defined by bleeding, such as amputations and hemorrhaging, by removing blood from the patient. Often, the physician withdrew blood until the patient fainted.
Physicians often used leeches in their bloodletting procedures until the late nineteenth century and the rise of "mechanical leeches" and other devices. Though effective at drawing blood, an individual leech only consumed about half an ounce of blood before dropping off the patient. This led physicians to use as many as fifty leeches in one session, placed in locations as uncomfortable as inside the patent's mouth or rectum.
Modern Bloodletting Cures
Though debunked as ineffective in most of its historical uses, phlebotomy remains a useful treatment in some cases. Withdrawing blood successfully treats hereditary hemochromatosis, a condition of excess iron in the blood. Polycythemia, characterised by an overabundance of red blood cells, also benefits from the practice of removing blood.
Most modern blood drawing functions not as a cure but as a diagnosis tool. Phlebotomists specialise in the procedures for drawing blood for diagnostic tests and other routine procedures, including checking blood sugar and cholesterol levels, blood donation, toxicology tests and DNA tests. Phlebotomists most often use needles and vacuum collection tubes for drawing blood.
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- "Childbed Fever: A Scientific Biography of Ignaz Semmelweis"; K. Codell Carter and Barbara Carter; 2005
- PBS: Red Gold: The Epic Story of Blood: Early Practices: Barber-Surgeons
- Links on Hemochromatosis: Therapeutic Phlebotomy (TP) for Hereditary Hemochromatosis (HH): A Practical Guide for Patients and Health Care Personnel
- "A History of Medicine: Greek Medicine"; Plinio Prioreschi; 1994
- University of Utah: Phlebotomy: Blood Collection: Routine Venipuncture and Specimen Handling