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What is Trepanning?

By Shannon Kietzman
Updated May 17, 2024
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Trepanning refers to a specialized form of surgery involving drilling or scraping a hole into the skull. The goal of trepanning is to expose the tough and inflexible dura mater, or pachymeninx, which is the outermost layer of the meninges surrounding the brain and spinal cord.

Trepanning has taken place for hundreds of years all over the world for a variety of reasons. There is even evidence in the form of cave paintings that trepanation occurred during the Neolithic times as a cure for migraines, epileptic seizures, and mental disorders. Hippocrates also provided directions for the procedure during the Greek age. Trepanning remained a common practice through the 19th century and has recently started making a comeback for both mystical and medical reasons.

To complete a trepanation, the surgeon first drills a hole into the skull. A small piece of bone is then removed in order to relieve pressure from the brain. Over time, the bone grows back but the new bone is shallower than the rest of the skull. Since the bone grows back after trepanning, scientists are able to determine if the patient survived the operation simply by examining the skull remains. Some holes in skulls discovered by scientists have been as large as two inches in diameter and, amazingly, scientist believe approximately 2/3 of those who underwent the procedure survived.

The tools commonly used in trepanning included a sharp knife, which was used to cut through the skin of the skull and made it possible to pull back the flaps, and a borer similar to a corkscrew. Surgeons also used brushes and files to tidy up the final area around the hole. It took hours for the surgeon to complete the procedure with these tools. Today, those attempting to bring back trepanning use an electric drill for the procedure instead. This makes it possible to complete a trepanation in less than one hour.

Modern day trepannation is rarely performed by medical doctors. The International Trepanation Advocacy Group (ITAG), however, insists trepanning should be a far more common practice. This stance is largely based on the fact that human baby skulls have what is known as a soft spot. Supporters of trepanning believe the procedure returns the skull to this natural state. As a result, supporters believe physical energy is gained, mental illness can be cured, and many health issues involving the brain can be alleviated.

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Discussion Comments
By lonelygod — On Aug 05, 2011

Many people seem to associate ancient medicine with some kind of lost wisdom, but the fact is that many people in the past were just as prone to faulty thinking as we are today.

The funny thing is that some medieval medicine just doesn't seem to capture the public's imagination the same way every time. I don't hear many people wanting to bleed patients out just to fix their colds and arthritis. It is really interesting that some people today actually claim to have undergone self-trepanation and have benefited from it! I think that says a lot about the power of positive thinking.

According to rock legend, John Lennon was very interested in trepanation and wanted himself and the three other Beatles to go through with it to benefit from the increased state of consciousness it was supposed to give them. I guess the allure of New Age medicine knows no bounds for some people.

By drtroubles — On Aug 05, 2011

While a lot of old traditional forms of medicine have come back into vogue as of late, such as the Chinese practice of acupuncture, usually the patient has little to lose from the procedure, unlike with trepanning.

With trepanning being such a drastic kind of surgery, that is much more dangerous than most medical treatments out there, I'm not even sure how one would go about attaining the qualifications to drill a hole in a person's head. I can imagine that a lot of people would only try the alternative procedure when all other avenues of treatment have been exhausted.

What kind of qualifications would you expect a person to get for this kind of procedure, and do you think that modern insurance would even touch it?

By anon41088 — On Aug 12, 2009

eww that's really weird!

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