Healing and the Ancients: How Sports Medicine Builds on the Past

Yesterday as I lay on a table at the physical therapist’s, with a big bag of ice between my knees and a gigantic pile of hot, damp towels on my thigh, it occurred to me how smart the Romans really were.  I have an old knee/ankle injury that has been acting up, and since the only remedy for it is a combination of targeted exercise and rest, it is to the physical therapist that one must go.  If like me you are at all interested in history, or enjoy watching historical entertainment like “Rome” or the old sword-and-sandal epics, you cannot help but see the parallels between what our ancestors were doing millenia ago to treat what we might loosely term “sports injuries”, and what still remain among the best practices to restore human health today.

Chances are that even if you have never visited one yet, most of you reading this will spend will end up spending at least some part of your life in a physical therapist’s clinic.  The reasons why a doctor sends you there will vary, but they are not just places for athletes.  It could very well be that you end up with a physical therapist because of athletic injuries of course, but it could also just as easily be because of disabilities, accidents, recovery from surgery or, in the fullness of time, old age taking its toll.  Generally speaking, when you go to such a clinic you will see a whole range of ages among the patients, from teenagers who have injured themselves playing football or running, to very elderly people who are recovering from joint replacements.

What I find interesting in such places is the combination of new technology with ancient, tried-and-true methods of encouraging healing.  For example, at the clinic I go to there are different exercise machines designed to work different parts of the body, safely, using weights and resistance, along with machines like treadmills, ellipticals, and stair climbers to get the heart rate up and joints moving.  Many of these machines have digital technology with computers on board, to create various timing and usage programs.  The therapists themselves walk about using laptop and pad computers as they take notes, and track the progress of their patients.

Yet there also implements and methods which are unchanged from very ancient times. These could include such things as throwing and catching a heavy, rubber ball, or using sturdy straps and ropes to stretch out cramped muscles, or subjecting oneself to manipulation by the therapist, that could come right out of a description from one of Pliny the Younger’s letters.  For example, one of my newest exercises to loosen up and strengthen my ankle involves scattering a handful of marbles on the floor, and then using only my toes to pick each of them up and drop them individually in a cup, while the therapist times my performance.  It feels like a positively antediluvian exercise.

There is always some element of physical therapy involving pain, which has not changed in centuries, either.  One goes through the experience of having things bent, pushed, and pulled out of joint for what seems like an eternity, and then one is rewarded by being frozen or cooked to death – or both, simultaneously, through the use of ice packs or heating pads.  Of course if the therapist likes to combine Eastern and Western methods, you may also be pricked all over with pins, or have hot rocks put all over you, and other strange things.

Professional athletes are quite used to this sort of treatment, of course.  Recently for example I saw a commercial where a group of Brazilian soccer players were in their physical therapists’ clinic after a match, sitting in individual galvanized metal bathtubs, and each was being covered with massive piles of ice cubes up to their chest to reduce inflammation in their legs.  While these methods obviously work, for those of us not accustomed to such treatment on a regular basis, with sports medicine seemingly alien to our experience of spending most of the day sitting down, one simply holds on for dear life until it is all over.

Perhaps it is the history nerd in me, but I must confess I do rather like the idea of having a connection to the distant past when I go to such places.  There is a sense that the accumulated knowledge of centuries is at work, so that there is relief and healing in the hands of the competent people who run these places.  Modern pharmaceuticals are indeed wonderful things, for they alleviate a great deal of suffering. Yet for “sports injuries” to our bones, nerves, and muscles, human interaction and the personal attention paid to each patient brought to bear by a good physical therapist provides a degree of relief through communication, based on an understanding that one size does not fit all. This is a refreshingly old idea, in a world constantly seeking novelty.

Wall painting of patients and therapists in Ancient Egypt (c. 2,300 B.C.)
Tomb of the Physician, Saqqara, Egypt

4 thoughts on “Healing and the Ancients: How Sports Medicine Builds on the Past

  1. Interesting connection. I would say that building on the past is a very reasonable and humble approach to any science or area of human knowledge. The burden of proof should be on new technologies and practices, especially in the medical realm, to prove not just that they have some possible positive effect but that also they “do no harm” in the short or long run (or at least to give us a strong handle on what the potential harm risk/reward may be).

    I have been researching a lot about nutrition lately and it seems, IMHO, that it is a field of research that has completely abandoned its roots over the past century. The field is fraught with bad science, popular but unproved hypotheses (like the fat/cholesterol/heart disease hypothesis), conflicts of interest in the research funding.

    Check out some of the work of Gary Taubes (written or on youtube), Chris Masterjohn (youtube), Tom Naughton (Documentary entitled “Fat Head” on netflix, or Big Fat Fiasco on youtube), etc, if interested.


    • Hey, thanks for reading. I think you’re right and one of the reasons why so many people are looking into the nature of the foods we eat these days is a realization that not everything new and standardized is necessarily better for us.


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