Austen Authors March 2, 2020: 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

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

  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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