Straightening Out the Problem: King Richard III Went Through Traction Torture Treatments to Fix Hunchback

First Posted: Apr 19, 2013 11:40 AM EDT

Let's set the record straight: King Richard III may not have been a hunchback, as commonly portrayed by Shakespeare. However, scientists believe that he did suffer from scoliosis, a spine-curving condition that can cause complications standing or sitting for long periods of time. Scientists now think that he may have undergone painful medical treatments to straighten out this health problem.

In February, archaeologists excavated bones from underneath a parking lot in Leicester, England, that belonged to the medieval king. Since his confirmation, examiners have continued to look for bones and historical records

Previous work showed King Richard III likely developed severe scoliosis, a painful condition, in his teen years. [Image Gallery: Photos Reveal the Discovery of Richard III]

Now, Mary Ann Lund, of the University of Leicester's School of English, has looked into the types of scoliosis treatments available when Richard III was alive, finding one would have been widely available for those who could afford it, such as the nobility.

Even so, there is no evidence on his bones to support the treatment.

"It wouldn't necessarily be possible to distinguish such signs," Lund told LiveScience. "Richard had idiopathic adolescent onset scoliosis, which means that the cause for it is not apparent, and that it developed after the age of about 10. So he would probably have been treated as an adolescent as well as during his adult life."

When he was born in 1452, ruling England from 1483 to 1485, only a few treatments were available for the health condition. Reports indicate that scoliosis was generally thought to be caused by an imbalance in the body's humors. "The theory of the humors would mean that this [treatment] would be geared towards Richard's individual humoral complexion," Lund wrote in an email. "Given the severity of his scoliosis, it's likely that treatment would have involved more than the topical application of ointments."

Many of these treatments have been painful, according to Lund. For instance, one involved using the same principle for the so-called Rack used in torture, which was called traction.

For this treatment, rope would be tied under the patient's armpits and around his legs; these ropes would then be pulled at either end to stretch the person's spine.

Richard III would have been able to afford traction treatment, Lund said. In addition, his doctors would have been well aware of the method, which was detailed in treatises on medicine and philosophy by 11th-century Persian polymath Avicenna. (Avicenna's work seems to have been influenced by Greek philosopher Hippocrates, Lund said.) These treatises, including Avicenna's theories on using traction in scoliosis treatment, would have been widely read in Medieval Europe, Lund noted.

Avicenna's treatments for back disorders also included massage techniques done in Turkish baths and herbal applications.

"Hippocratic medicine was based on responding carefully to the individual, so without Richard's medical records we can only make conjectures," Lund wrote. Whether the possible treatment worked is also "impossible" to definitively answer, Lund said. "Historical accounts describe him as an active fighter in battle, so he was clearly able to do strenuous physical activity. On the other hand, it seems likely that the condition was painful and would have restricted his lung capacity."

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