ASTHMAThe medical history of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic disease in which sufferers have repeated attacks of difficulty in breathing and coughing

The term Asthma comes from the Greek verb aazein, meaning to pant, to exhale with the open mouth, sharp breath. In The Iliad, a Greek epic poem (attributed to Homer) describing the siege of Troy, the expression asthma appeared for the first time.

The Corpus Hippocraticum, by Hippocrates, is the earliest text where the word asthma is found as a medical term. We are not sure whether Hippocrates (460-360 BC) meant asthma as a clinical entity or as merely a symptom. Hippocrates said spasm linked to asthma were more likely to occur among anglers, tailors and metalworkers.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia (100 AD), an ancient Greek master clinician, wrote a clinical description of asthma. Galen (130-200 AD), an ancient Greek physician, wrote several mentions of asthma which generally agreed with the Hippocratic texts and to some extent those of Aretaeus of Cappadocia. He described asthma as bronchial obstructions and treated it with owl’s blood in wine.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 AD), the rabbi and philosopher who lived in Andalucia (Spain), Morocco and Egypt, was also a physician who practiced medicine in the court of Sultan Saladin of Egypt and Syri. Among many medical texts, Maimonides wrote Treatise of Asthma for Prince Al-Afdal, a patient of his. Maimonides revealed that his patient’s symptoms often started as a common cold during the wet months. Eventually the patient gasped for air and coughed until phlegm was expelled. He noted that the dry months of Egypt helped asthma sufferers. Maimonides also suggested avoidance of strong medication, plenty of sleep, fluids, moderation of sexual activity, and chicken soup.

Jean Baptiste Van Helmont (1579-1644 AD), a physician, chemist and physiologist from Belgium, said that asthma originates in the pipes of the lungs.

Bernardino Ramazzini (1633-1714 AD), known to some as the father of sports medicine, detected a link between asthma and organic dust. He also recognized exercise-induced asthma.

At the beginning of the 20th century asthma was seen as a psychosomatic disease – an approach that probably undermined any medical breakthroughs at the time. During the 1930s to 1950s, asthma was known as one of the holy seven psychosomatic illnesses.

Asthma was described as psychological, with treatment often involving, as its primary component, psychoanalysis and other ‘talking cures’. A child’s wheeze was seen as a suppressed cry for his or her mother. Psychoanalysts thought that patients with asthma should be treated for depression. This psychiatric theory was eventually refuted and asthma became known as a physical condition.

Asthma, as an inflammatory disease, was not really recognized until the 1960s when anti-inflammatory medications started being used


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