Dr Sarah Brewer June 26, 2017

Did Michelangelo hold the secret to keeping joints flexible, asks Dr Sarah Brewer?

Michelangelo (1475 – 1564) was one of the greatest artists of all time. A revered painter, architect, poet, engineer and sculptor, he had a knack of finding the beauty locked within a block of marble by skilfully trimming away its ‘excess’.

Michelangelo lived until just before his 89th birthday and history suggests he continued to hammer away during his last few days, despite a painful joint affliction, recurring kidney stones, dizziness and depression.

According to Italian doctors, writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, who analysed three portraits of Michelangelo, it is very likely that he suffered from osteoarthritis, with portraits of Michelangelo was between 60 and 65 years old showing him looking older than his years; tired, and with typical osteoarthritic swelling of the small joints in his left hand.

These deformities would have been made worse by prolonged hammering and chiselling and probably caused him a good deal of pain.

The portraits also support previous claims that the artist was left-handed which would explain why Michelangelo had difficulty writing. He described it as causing ‘great discomfort’ in later life and the nodular deformities would have made his left thumb stiff. As his ‘hand refused to write’ he asked others to pen his letters which he would then sign.

Although prolonged hammering and chiselling might have accelerated his joint problems, the doctors also decided that this intense work probably helped him to maintain the use of his hands until he died, as regular exercise is essential for keeping joints flexible.

Was his diet a factor?

Michelangelo lived a frugal life, once telling an apprentice: ‘However rich I may have been, I have always lived like a poor man.’

Although the Mediterranean diet is acclaimed as one of the healthiest in the world, he was described as indifferent to food and drink, and ate from necessity rather than pleasure. If he did not eat much fish, fruit or vegetables, he may well have been deficient in vitamins and minerals that help to maintain healthy bones and joints, which may also have contributed to the signs of tiredness and fatigue.

Medieval treatments

In Medieval times, arthritis pain in the feet was known as podagra, while pain in the hands and wrists, with difficulty bending the fingers, was called chiragra. The cause was attributed to the weather, food, fornication, or a combination of these, which affected bodily fluids known as ‘humours’.

Joint pain was said to result when ‘hot blood [flowed] into the cavity of the joint causing occasional violent pains’ or when ‘bile gets between the tendons and ligaments and causes pain by burning and stretching … the nerve fibres or muscle fibres asunder’.

Popular treatments included herbal blends of cinnamon, rhubarb, aniseed, sesame, cabbage, thyme, absinthe, saffron, ammoniac and henna. If the joints were hot, red and inflamed, treatment involved applying a dressing made from various ingredients such as oak galls, coriander seed, hemlock, dried poppy-tears (opium), turpentine resin, frankincense and cedar oil mixed with wax, or axel-grease.

An even more unpleasant remedy was made from the dung of mountain goats mixed with lard and plastered onto painful joints. This was also applied to the space between the index finger and thumb, ‘where the hollow approaches the wrist’ and was believed to seep into the body and reach any painful joint via the arm to combat pain.

Another popular treatment was to apply wet seaweed (Luminaria), which was kept moist to form a cooling plaster. If pain was severe, then a purple luminescent jellyfish was beaten to a pulp and applied to the joint – presumably acting in the same way as bee venom therapy.

Internal remedies included the juice of henbane mixed with raisins and vinegar – not one to try at home as henbane is poisonous! White willow bark (from which aspirin is derived) was also used to reduce pain. While it is an effective painkiller, it can cause side effects such as stomach irritation, bleeding disorders, and may have adverse effects on the kidney.

If he were alive today, Michelangelo may well have been prescribed paracetamol or non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to ease his pain, although his recurring kidney stones would have made treatment with these drugs a cause for concern.

Instead, he might have opted for fish oil supplements, glucosamine and chondroitin, or perhaps the traditional herbal remedy, Devil’s claw. And compared with animal dung and axle-grease rubs, he would have found glucosamine gel far more socially acceptable!

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