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Concept and treatment of hydrocephalus in the Greco-Roman and early Arabic medicine.


In the ancient medical literature hydrocephalus was not often described although its existence and symptomatology were well known. Most detailed descriptions of hydrocephalus including the surgical treatment are extant in the encyclopaedic works on medicine of the physicians Oreibasios and Aetios from Amida from the 4th and 6th centuries AD, respectively. Because of their broad scientific interests, this type of physicians, typical for the late Roman empire, were known as philosophy-physicians (iota alpha tau rho o sigma o phi iota sigma tau alpha iota). They defined hydrocephalus in contrast to our present understanding as a fluid collection excluding abscesses visible as a bulging tumour localised either outside or inside the skull of an infant. They classified the hydrocephalus similar as stated first by Galen in the 2nd century AD in four types corresponding to the assumed anatomic localisation of the fluid collection: 1st Type between the skin and the pericranium corresponding to the subgaleal haematoma or caput succedaneum of the newborn in our terminology, 2nd Type between the pericranium and the skull corresponding to the cephal haematoma after delivery, 3rd Type between skull and the meninges with increased head circumference, bone sutures being increasingly driven apart corresponding most likely to the hydrocephalus in our understanding, and 4th Type between the menings and the brain characterised by severe neurological deficit with lethal prognosis corresponding probably to all pathologies which were accompanied by an excessive increase of the intracranial pressure with a bulging fontanel. Due to the lack of autopsies in ancient times, the hydrocephalus was never linked to the pathology of the ventricles. All forms of hydrocephalus were believed to be caused by improper handling of the head by the midwife during delivery. Only the extracranial fluid collections, but not hydrocephalus in our sense, were considered to be suitable for surgical treatment. The surgery consisted in one or more incisions and evacuation of the fluid. The wound was not closed but let open for three days. Thereafter plasters or sutures closed the incisions. The surgical technique goes back probably to Antyllos a surgeon from the 3rd century AD whose considerations were cited in the work of Oreibasios. The early Arabic physicians took over the surgical indications, the operative technique and modified the Greek concept of hydrocephalus. Avicenna separated the traumatic haematomas outside the skull from the term hydrocephalus. However Avicenna, as all previous authors, had not linked hydrocephalus with the ventricular system. The autopsy of a child with an exorbitant hydrocephalus performed by the anatomist Vesalius in the 16th century revealed as a single pathology an extremely dilative ventricular system filled with water-like fluid which made it necessary to change completely the ancient concept of hydrocephalus.


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    Arab World
    Greek World
    History, 15th Century
    History, Ancient
    History, Medieval
    Infant, Newborn
    Intracranial Hemorrhage, Traumatic
    Neurosurgical Procedures
    Roman World
    Textbooks as Topic

    Pub Type(s)

    Historical Article
    Journal Article



    PubMed ID