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Doctors once believed that the uterus would just start wandering around your body, leading to "hysteria." Spoiler Alert: That's not a thing! Isn't it great to be alive... now?

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When you hear the term ‘hysteria’, you might think of a frenzied group of people — like shoppers on Black Friday. But for a long time that word meant something different.

Hysteria was a mental condition attributed specifically to uterus problems, and it became a sort of catch-all diagnosis for any women’s health problems doctors couldn’t figure out. The term — which even came from the Greek word for uterus — was coined by the physician. Hippocrates around 500 BCE.

But it was acknowledged as far back as in Ancient Egypt, a thousand years before then. It’s no longer recognized today, but it has a complicated history full of strange explanations. Including one that said that the uterus just sort of wandered around the body, causing problems.

Sometimes you’re just extra thankful for modern science. Even doctors today can’t always figure out what’s going on with a patient based on their symptoms. And, unsurprisingly, this happened a lot more when we didn’t really understand the human body.

So for thousands of years, stumped doctors wouldn’t just admit that they didn’t know what was happening, and they would diagnose their female patients with hysteria. The list of symptoms for this condition could include almost anything, including anxiety, melancholy, bursts of emotion, headaches, tremors, and even convulsions. Anything they couldn’t figure out got lumped in, and physicians throughout the ages came up with some… surprising explanations for hysteria.

Up until around the 20th century, almost all of them blamed the uterus. This might seem somewhat silly now, since we know that the uterus mostly deals with reproduction — nurturing and housing fetuses. But, at the time, physicians didn’t really know how all that worked.

So the most popular explanation — and the weirdest — was that hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus. Apparently, someone’s womb could just get bored and… move around. It could crush their intestines, lungs, or heart, or create an empty cavern in their body — all of which would supposedly cause those random symptoms.

One Greek physician called this phenomenon “uterine melancholy”. The good news, though, is that this wandering uterus could be easily cured or prevented. Many believed that it was caused by these women not having a regular sex life, or not being pregnant often enough.

So the solution was either to have more babies or to have more sex in general. According to the societal standards of the day, they just had to get married first. So real simple cure.

Another — arguably stranger — cure was to use different scents to put the uterus back in place. For some reason, physicians believed that it was attracted to pleasant smells and repelled by foul ones. So if your uterus happened to wander too high up into your body, you could sniff something unpleasant — like ammonia-containing smelling salts — to drive it lower.

Or you could use vaginal perfumes to coax it back into the right spot. Because that’s totally how that works. Starting in the 1700s, some researchers decided that hysteria was neurological and had nothing to do with the uterus, but it took a lot longer for the public to catch on.

Even during the late 1800s, many women carried around smelling salts to revive them when they swooned and fainted — the idea being that the wandering uterus had caused them to pass out. In reality, it probably had nothing to do with their reproductive systems. Historians believe that anything from tight corsets to societal pressure could’ve been responsible for all the swooning back then.

But if nothing else, smelling salts are pretty good at reviving unconscious people. Smelling salts are actually a mixture of ammonium carbonate and perfume. So when you waft them around, they release ammonia gas, which can irritate the linings of your nose and lungs and cause you to suddenly inhale.

That will likely snap you back to consciousness, no uterus-adjustment required. There were other quick fixes for hysteria, too. Around the 1870s, a device was invented to help women who couldn’t get enough sex in their lives: the vibrator.

Widespread views on hysteria finally started changing around 1890 or so, when everybody’s favorite psychoanalyst rolled in: Sigmund Freud. Freud had learned about this condition from other prominent teachers. And after finding a few case studies, he helped popularize the idea that hysteria was neurological, and therefore must apply to all sexes.

But then, in true Freud fashion, he suggested it was caused by someone not having a mature enough libido, which led to them not having enough sex. Which is also just not a thing. Although most people abandoned the uterus idea after that point, hysteria didn’t really fall out of pop culture — at least in the West — until 1980.

Then, it was removed from the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of. Mental Disorders. The DSM is the manual clinicians use to guide their diagnoses, so once hysteria was out, it was no longer considered an ‘official’ condition.

Today, many of the symptoms traditionally associated with hysteria are linked to things like clinical anxiety or depression instead. And hysteria got replaced by a kind of catch-all diagnosis called conversion disorder. That’s when a patient has definite neurological symptoms, like paralysis or blindness, without any discernible cause.

But one thing’s for sure: it definitely has nothing to do with your uterus getting up and walking around your body. Feels like that should have been something we could have figured out in those hundreds of years that we thought that was a thing. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow!

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