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Weird health;Mind amp; Body;Trepanning

Superstition or medical fact? Our new series looks at some of the more debatable routes to feeling good

As body piercing becomes passe (even minor Royals are doing it) there is one branch of self-perforation that remains strictly off limits to all but a few drill-wielding devotees. However, trepanning - the removal of a disc of bone from the skull - was once a relatively common surgical procedure.

Skulls showing evidence of trepanation have been found dating back to prehistoric times. Ancient Egyptians, Greeks, Celts and Incas all did it, Hippocrates wrote detailed instructions on how to do it and Philip of Orange had it done 17 times. Apparently, he had a brain like a sieve.

In the Middle Ages, when superstition ruled medical practice, trepanation was thought to release the demons of the mind that caused disease. Even at the turn of the century surgeons still used a trephine - a small circular saw - to relieve brain tumours and other neurological disorders and antique trepanning kits are treasured collectors' pieces.

We are all born with a hole in the head (the soft fontanelle on a baby's crown seals within the first 18 months) but, very occasionally, we need another one - in a hurry.

In July this year, Hayden McGlinn suffered a blood clot during a game of Australian Rules in a remote outback town. British locum Dr Steve Hindley used a rusty bit and brace to perform improvised neurosurgery and save the 23-year-old's life.

Modern day trepanners, such as Old Etonian Joey Mellen, tend to get aerated in search of some spiritual enlightenment. Ever since homo sapiens started standing, gravity reduced the bloodflow to the brain and robbed us of elevated states of consciousness. Trepanning, so the theory goes, takes you back up there.

But before you get the Black and Decker out, you should read Bore Hole, Joey's book about his LSD-enhanced efforts to trepan himself in the 1960s. He succeeded on the fifth attempt and claims to have been elated ever since but maybe - given the bloodiness of his botch jobs - he's just very glad to be alive.

Harvey McGavin

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