General Aztecs Maya Tocuaro Kids Contact 19 Nov 2019/6 Lizard
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An Aztec doctor treating a broken leg bone, Florentine Codex

Aztec advances (5): treating bone fractures using intramedullar nails

This is the fifth in a series of entries based on information in the Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002). The main image shows a Mexica doctor treating a broken leg - from the Florentine Codex (Book X). (Compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Illustration showing intramedullary nailing in a femur bone. Image credit: rob.cs.tu-bs.de
Pic 1: Illustration showing intramedullary nailing in a femur bone. Image credit: rob.cs.tu-bs.de (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Intramedullar nails are surgically implanted into a long bone when it has failed to callus (produce new bone growth) at the site of a fracture. If a break or a fracture in a bone fails to heal, it is generally due to the callus (strands of bony material between the two ends of a break or fracture) failing to consolidate (harden). Ancient Aztec surgeons remedied the problem of fractures that refused to heal by using an intramedullar nail. In so doing, they performed one of the most spectacular orthopaedic surgical techniques in precontact Mesoamerica. First they scraped the tissue from around the break or fracture and inserted a small piece of sticky, resinous wood (the intramedullar nail) into it. When they had completed this procedure, they covered the entire area with a medicinal plant plaster. Usually the plants they chose had antibiotic and astringent properties that prevented infections and stopped any bleeding. The area was then rebandaged. This allowed the callus to consolidate and become true bone tissue. Western medicine did not use this technique until the 20th century.’

Pic 2: Bandaging a broken leg, Florentine Codex Book X. Note the prominent illustration of the roots...
Pic 2: Bandaging a broken leg, Florentine Codex Book X. Note the prominent illustration of the roots... (Click on image to enlarge)

This is the text from the Florentine Codex:-
In injuries... whatever bone is injured, first [it] is pressed, stretched, joined. then zacacili root is cut; a very thick poultice [of the pulverised root] is applied. Wooden splints are pressed on; they are bound about it. And if there is a swelling around [the break] it is pricked with an obsidian blade. Or [pulverised root of] iztac zazalic is spread on; it is spread on with [pulverised] tememetlatl root... And if one is very sick, and his body is much fevered, and the bone is exposed; a very resinous stick is cut; it is inserted within the bone, bound within the incision, covered over with the medicine mentioned.

Pic 3: Aztec physician, Florentine Codex Book X; note the speech mark - to show him speaking or chanting
Pic 3: Aztec physician, Florentine Codex Book X; note the speech mark - to show him speaking or chanting (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s interesting that the Mexica cure for bone fractures included an incantation (chant), which referred to bones being the property of Mictlantecuhtli (Lord of the Underworld) and being sourced from Mictlan, the Underworld. This invokes the myth of human creation from bones in Mictlan, and seems to stress to the Aztec people the fragility of life itself, and the need to call for supernatural help for the cure. It is generally agreed today that Mexica medicine was a combination of empirical (tried-and-tested) methods and magic...

Sources:-
Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World by Emory Dean Keoke and Kay Marie Porterfield (Facts on File, 2002)
Aztec Medicine, Health and Nutrition by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano (Rutgers University Press, 1990)
Florentine Codex, Book 10 - The People, translated and annotated by Charles E. Dribble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (University of Utah Press, 1963)

Picture sources:-
• Images from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 1: illustration taken from boneandspine.com website (link below).

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jul 09th 2019

‘What were the surgery practices among the Aztecs?’

‘Intramedullary rod’ (Wikipedia)
BoneandSpine.com - Intramedullary Nailing of Fractures
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