Asthma, or asthma-like symptoms, were described as early as 5,000 B.C., and the term asthma was first introduced into medical nomenclature by Hippocrates as early as 400 B.C. So why has asthma not been cured yet?
To be fair, however, we have to give physicians and scientists a ton of credit for all the advances in asthma wisdom that have been made in the past 100 years. This has resulted in better approaches to treating this disease, and better and safer medicines.
Yet still, through it all, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI.org), asthma continues to affect over 300 million people worldwide, with over 250,000 asthmatics dying each year.
Why, then, does asthma still plague mankind?
It was illegal to inspect a dead body
Ancient physicians who followed the military easily observed the wounds of young gladiators and warriors. They probably observed minor wounds during practice and training, and serious wounds during battle. These would have been the first known disorders of the human body that physicians learned how to fix.
Internal diseases weren't so obvious, and learning about them was nearly impossible. Surely they could see the symptoms of disease, but they didn't understand why they happened. Why do people get short of breath? Why do people get asthma?
Hippocrates studied his asthma patients and came up with his own answers, which he called theories. He thought asthma was caused by too much phlegm.
The only way to learn the truth about asthma was to see inside an asthmatic's chest, but this was impossible. One reason was because there were no x-rays, and another was because it was considered sacrosanct to touch a corpse except to prepare it for burial or cremation. It was also illegal. The penalty if caught was death. This was how it was until the 18th century. So you can see why little was learned about asthma during this time.
While curiosities started to spike as early as the 16th century, the 18th century was a key century in the evolution of asthma. It was during this 100 year period that those in power lightened up on the regulations, and physicians were finally able to perform autopsies.
While not a lot was learned about asthma during this era, these physicians paved a path for later physicians to follow.
Regardless, once Hippocrates introduced asthma to physicians, it took over 1,100 years just to start studying it.
Asthma leaves behind no visible scars
Even in the primitive world it was easy to see external scars, such as inflamed skin due to poison ivy. Yet it was impossible to see internal scars, such as inflamed asthmatic air passages.
In fact, when a few, anonymous brave physicians did inspect the insides of those who died, they easily saw inflammation caused by pneumonia, and scars caused by tuberculosis. But they saw no scars in asthmatic lungs.
In the ancient world, and even as recently as the 20th century, diseases that left no scars were thought to be psychological in nature. So asthma was thought to be a disease similar to hypochondria and hysteria. Surely there was chronic inflammation in the lungs of all asthmatics that ever lived, but this fact wasn't discovered until the 1980s. Perhaps one of the reasons was because physicians thought asthma was nervous, and searched for answers in the head instead of the lungs.
DID YOU KNOW?
Hippocrates speculated asthma was caused by spasms in the air passages of the lungs, long before asthma was thought to be nervous. Over 2,200 years later he was proven right by 19th century physicians.
Asthma was mistaken as a nervous disorder
Since the paradigm that asthma was a nervous disorder was formed early on in our history, asthma experts were convinced it was true.
In the 16th century Dr.Jan Baptista van Helmont and Dr. Thomas Willis described asthma as nervous. In the 18th century, Dr. William Cullen believed the nerve was a continuation of a muscle. He figured since asthma occurred when bronchial muscles spasm and squeeze asthmatic air passages, this was caused by signals from the brain. During the 19th century Dr. Henry Hyde Salter wrote a book called "On Asthma: It's Pathology and Treatment." In this book he claimed to have proved asthma was nervous. He said that asthmatics feel fine as soon as they enter his office. He said laughter and excitement can bring on a fit of asthma. He said remedies that fix nervous problems also fix asthma. He said this proved asthma was definitely nervous. Dr. Salter was the most well respected asthma expert in the world at the time, so his opinion had a significant impact on the medical community. His idea that asthma was nervous was believed even into the 1980s. But it was disproved in the 1950s.
Today doctors know that emotions can trigger an asthma attack, but they do not cause asthma.
Few people died from asthma
Eighteenth century asthma expert Dr. William Withering said, "The disease does not cut short the usual period of life." Dr. Salter said, "Asthma never kills; at least I have never seen a case in which a paroxysm proved fatal." In 1900, Dr. William Osler said "the asthmatic pants into old age." By these quotes, and by similar ones not mentioned, it appears asthma was not thought to be fatal. Surely it was a disease "of the direst suffering, as Dr. Salter said. But over time an asthma attack will end, and the asthma will go into remission.
Perhaps this was one of the main reasons the medical community placed asthma on the back burner while it concentrated its efforts on curing other, more deadly diseases that plagued mankind.
Other diseases were deemed more important
Surely asthma caused grief for those who suffered from it, but the disease affected so few, and killed so few (or so it was thought), that learning about it was not a top priority for physicians.
On the other hand, plagues killed entire families and, in some cases, entire villages and towns. Physicians in the ancient world were more concerned with deadly plagues than they were about a disease like asthma. Through most of history, diseases that gained the eye of the public were pneumonia, tuberculosis, smallpox, influenza, measles, syphilis and leprosy. These overwhelmed the medical community. It only made sense that if any disease demanded immediate attention, it was one of these. Asthma would simply have to wait until all, or most, of these deadly diseases were cured, or at least controlled.
Finally, however, during the first half of the 20th century, physicians would gain control of most of these diseases. We owe this to inventions and discoveries like antiseptics, antibiotics and vaccines.
This had a significant impact on asthma, as beginning in 1900 physicians started to focus in on what causes it, and what fixes it. Thanks to all the discoveries since that time, asthma experts of today are getting closer and closer every day to a cure.
Today, there are many physicians, researchers, scientists and pharmacologists working hard to find a cure for asthma. Every day new discoveries are made, each one taking these experts one step closer to the ultimate cure.
In the meantime, the quest has resulted in some wonderful new treatments for controlling, preventing, and treating asthma. So even while there's no cure, most asthmatics who see their doctor regularly, and are compliant with their asthma treatment regime, can live a normal life free of asthma symptoms.