Secondary Logo

Share this article on:

The Classic: On the Articulations: Hippocrates as translated by Francis Adams


Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research: July 2002 - Volume 400 - Issue - p 19-25
SECTION I SYMPOSIUM: Recent Basic Science and Clinical Advances in Anterior Glenohumeral Instability: The Classic

(Reprinted with permission from Francis Adams, Translator: On the Articulations. The Genuine Works of Hippocrates. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins 205–214, 1939.)

Hippocrates (Fig 1) was born on the Greek island of Cos, the son of a physician. Among his contemporaries were Plato, Socrates, Xenophon, and Protagas. It was a time of great intellectual ferment. Hippocrates practiced in Cos and was surrounded by a group of students throughout most of his life. He left an impressive legacy in the form of numerous manuscripts, which have survived and fascinated medical historians for generations. Not all of this material actually can be attributed to Hippocrates. However, most scholars think that the surgical books are the most likely to come from Hippocrates.

Fig 1.

Fig 1.

Hippocrates was familiar with the problem of dislocation of the shoulder. The Greeks were great athletes and there were the usual risks of an agrarian society. He dealt with acute dislocation, he faced the problems of delayed reduction, and there were cases of pathologic dislocations attributable to suppurative conditions such as tuberculosis. All of these problems can be seen today and are recognized by the same signs and symptoms described by Hippocrates. Although many of the diseases described by Hippocrates have disappeared or metamorphosed into new forms, trauma remains immutable, the same today as it was at the time of Hippocrates.

The classic article is the section on dislocation of the shoulder taken from the translation by Francis Adams, a great nineteenth century student of Hippocrates. It contains the description of the reduction of a dislocated shoulder by methods used in all emergency rooms to this day.

Leonard F. Peltier, MD, PhD

Back to Top | Article Outline

Translated from the Greek by Francis Adams, LL.D., Surgeon, With an Introduction by Emerson Crosby Kelly, M.D.

On the Articulations

I am acquainted with one form in which the shoulder-joint is dislocated, namely, that into the armpit; I have never seen it take place upward nor outward; and yet I do not positively affirm whether it might be dislocated in these directions or not, although I have something which I might say on this subject. But neither have I ever seen what I considered to be a dislocation forward. Physicians, indeed, fancy that dislocation is very apt to occur forward, and they are more particularly deceived in those persons who have the fleshy parts about the joint and arm much emaciated; for, in all such cases, the head of the arm appears to protrude forward. And I in one case of this kind having said that there was no dislocation, exposed myself to censure from certain physicians and common people on that account, for they fancied that I alone was ignorant of what everybody else was acquainted with, and I could not convince them but with difficulty, that the matter was so. But if one will strip the point of the shoulder of the fleshy parts, and where the muscle (deltoid?) extends, and also lay bare the tendon that goes from the armpit and clavicle to the breast (pectoral muscle?), the head of the humerus will appear to protrude strongly forward, although not dislocated, for the head of the humerus naturally inclines forward, but the rest of the bone is turned outward. The humerus is connected obliquely with the cavity of the scapula, when the arm is stretched along the sides; but when the whole arm is stretched forward, then the head of the humerus is in a line with the cavity of the humerus, and no longer appears to protrude forward. And with regard to the variety we are now treating of, I have never seen a case of dislocation forward; and yet I do not speak decidedly respecting it, whether such a dislocation may take place or not. When, then, a dislocation into the armpit takes place, seeing it is of frequent occurrence, many persons know how to reduce it, for it is an easy thing to teach all the methods by which physicians effect the reductions, and the best manner of applying them. The strongest of those methods should be used when the difficulty of reduction is particularly great. The strongest is the method to be last described.

2. Those who are subject to frequent dislocations at the shoulder-joint, are for the most part competent to effect the reduction themselves; for, having introduced the knuckles of the other hand into the armpit, they force the joint upward, and bring the elbow toward the breast. The physician might reduce it in the same manner, if having introduced his fingers into the armpit on the inside of the dislocated joint, he would force it from the ribs, pushing his own head against the acromion, in order to make counter-pressure, and with his knees applied to the patient’s elbow pushing the arm to the sides. It will be of advantage if the operator has strong hands, or the physician may do as directed with his head and hands, while another person brings the elbow toward the breast. Reduction of the shoulder may also be effected by carrying the fore-arm backward to the spine, and then with the one hand grasping it at the elbow, to bend the arm upward, and with the other to support it behind at the articulation. This mode of reduction, and the one formerly described, are not natural, and yet by rotating the bone of the joint, they force it to return.

3. Those who attempt to perform reduction with the heel, operate in a manner which is an approach to the natural. The patient must lie on the ground upon his back, while the person who is to effect the reduction is seated on the ground upon the side of the dislocation; then the operator, seizing with his hand the affected arm, is to pull it, while with his heel in the armpit he pushes in the contrary direction, the right heel being placed in the right armpit, and the left heel in the left armpit. But a round ball of a suitable size must be placed in the hollow of the armpit; the most convenient are very small and hard balls, formed from several pieces of leather sewed together. For without something of the kind the heel cannot reach to the head of the humerus, since, when the arm is stretched, the armpit becomes hollow, the tendons on both sides of the armpit making counter-contraction so as to oppose the reduction. But another person should be seated on the other side of the patient to hold the sound shoulder, so that the body may not be dragged along when the arm of the affected side is pulled; and then, when the ball is placed in the armpit, a supple piece of thong sufficiently broad is to be placed round it, and some person taking hold of its two ends is to seat himself above the patient’s head to make counter-extension, while at the same time he pushes with his foot against the bone at the top of the shoulder. The ball should be placed as much on the inside as possible, upon the ribs, and not upon the head of the humerus.

4. There is another method of reduction performed by the shoulder of a person standing. The person operating in this way, who should be taller than the patient, is to take hold of his arm and place the sharp point of his own shoulder in the patient’s armpit, and push it in so that it may lodge there, and having for his object that the patient may be suspended at his back by the armpit, he must raise himself higher on this shoulder than the other; and he must bring the arm of the suspended patient as quickly as possible to his own breast. In this position he should shake the patient when he raises him up, in order that the rest of the body may be a counterpoise to the arm which is thus held. But if the patient be very light, a light child should be suspended behind along with him. These methods of reduction are all of easy application in the palestra, as they can all be performed without instruments, but they may also be used elsewhere.

5. Those who accomplish the reduction by forcibly bending it round a pestle, operate in a manner which is nearly natural. But the pestle should be wrapped in a soft shawl (for thus it will be less slippery), and it should be forced between the ribs and the head of the humerus. And if the pestle be short, the patient should be seated upon something, so that his arm can with difficulty pass above the pestle. But for the most part the pestle should be longer, so that the patient when standing may be almost suspended upon the piece of wood. And then the arm and forearm should be stretched along the pestle, whilst some person secures the opposite side of the body by throwing his arms round the neck, near the clavicle.

6. But the method with a ladder is another of the same kind, and still better, since by it the body can be more safely counterpoised on this side; and that, while in the method which the piece of wood resembling a pestle, there is danger of the body tumbling to either side. But some round thing should be tied upon the step of the ladder which may be fitted to the armpit, whereby the head of the bone may be forced into its natural place.

7. The following, however, is the strongest of all the methods of reduction. We must get a piece of wood, five, or at least four inches broad, two inches in thickness, or still thinner, and two cubits in length, or a little less; and its extremity at one end should be rounded, and made very narrow and very slender there, and it should have a slightly projecting edge (ambe) on its round extremity, not on the part that is to be applied to the side, but to the head of the humerus, so that it may be adjusted in the armpit at the sides under the head of the humerus; and a piece of soft shawl or cloth should be glued to the end of the piece of wood, so as to give the less pain upon pressure. Then having pushed the head of this piece of wood as far inward as possible between the ribs and the head of the humerus, the whole arm is to be stretched along this piece of wood, and is to be bound round at the arm, the fore-arm, and the wrist, so that it may be particularly well secured; but great pains should be taken that the extremity of this piece of wood should be introduced as far as possible into the armpit, and that it is carried past the head of the humerus. Then a cross-beam is to be securely fastened between two pillars, and afterward the arm with the piece of wood attached to it is to be brought over this cross-beam, so that the arm may be on the one side of it and the body on the other, and the cross-beam in the armpit; and then the arm with the piece of wood is to be forced down on the one side of the cross-beam, and the rest of the body on the other. The cross-beam is to be bound so high that the rest of the body may be raised upon tip-toes. This is by far the most powerful method of effecting reduction of the shoulder; for one thus operates with the lever upon the most correct principles, provided only the pieces of wood be placed as much as possible within the head of the humerus, and thus also the counter-balancing weights will be most properly adjusted, and safely applied to the bone of the arm. Wherefore recent cases in this way may be reduced more quickly than could be believed, before even extension would appear to be applied; and this is the only mode of reduction capable of replacing old dislocations, and this it will effect, unless flesh had already filled up the (glenoid) cavity, and the head of the humerus has formed a socket for itself in the place to which it has been displaced; and even in such an old case of dislocation, it appears to me that we could effect reduction (for what object would a lever power properly applied not move?), but it would not remain in its place, but would be again displaced as formerly. The same thing may be effected by means of the ladder, by preparing it in the same manner. If the dislocation be recent, a large Thessalian chair may be sufficient to accomplish this purpose; the wood, however, should be dressed up as described before; but the patient should be seated sideways on the chair, and then the arm, with the piece of wood attached to it, is to be brought over the back of the chair, and force is to be applied to the arm, with the wood on the one side, and the body on the other side. The same means may be applied with a double door. One should always use what happens to be at hand.

8. Wherefore it should be known that one constitution differs much from another as to the facility with which dislocations in them may be reduced, and one articular cavity differs much from another, the one being so constructed that the bone readily leaps out of it, and another less so; but the greatest difference regards the binding together of the parts by the nerves (ligaments?) which are slack in some and tight in others. For the humidity in the joints of men is connected with the state of the ligaments, when they are slack and yielding; for you may see many people who are so humid (flabby?) that when they choose they can disarticulate their joints without pain, and reduce them in like manner. The habit of the body also occasions a certain difference, for in those who are in a state of embonpoint and fleshy the joint is rarely dislocated, but is more difficult to reduce; but when they are more attenuated and leaner than usual, then they are more subject to dislocations which are more easily reduced. And the following observation is a proof that matters are so; for in cattle the thighs are most apt to be dislocated at the hip-joint, when they are most particularly lean, which they are at the end of winter, at which time then they are particularly subject to dislocations, (if I may be allowed to make such an observation while treating of a medical subject); and therefore Homer has well remarked, that of all beasts oxen suffer the most at that season, and especially those employed at the plow as being worked in the winter season. In them, therefore, dislocations happen most frequently, as being at that time most particularly reduced in flesh. And other cattle can crop the grass when it is short, but the ox cannot do so until it becomes long; for, in the others, the projection of the lip is slender, and so is the upper lip, but in the ox the projection of the lip is thick, and the upper jaw is thick and obtuse, and therefore they are incapable of seizing short herbs. But the solidungula as having prominent teeth in both their front jaws, can crop the grass and grasp it with their teeth while short, and delight more in short grass than in rank; for, in general, short grass is better and more substantial than rank, as having not yet given out its fructification. Wherefore the poet has the following line:

“As when to horned cattle dear the vernal season comes,”1

because rank grass appears to be most sought after by them. But otherwise in the ox, this joint is slacker than in other animals, and, therefore, this animal drags his foot in walking more than any other, and especially when lank and old. For all these reasons the ox is most particularly subject to dislocations; and I have made the more observations respecting him, as they confirm all that was said before on this subject. With regard, then, to the matter on hand, I say that dislocations occur more readily, and are more speedily reduced in those who are lean than in those who are fleshy; and in those who are humid and lank there is less inflammation than in such as are dry and fleshy, and they are less compactly knit hereafter, and there is more mucosity than usual in cases not attended with inflammation, and hence the joints are more liable to luxations; for, in the main, the articulations are more subject to mucosities in those who are lean than in those who are fleshy; and the flesh of lean persons who have not been reduced by a proper course of discipline abounds more with mucosity than that of fat persons. But in those cases in which the mucosity is accompanied with inflammation, the inflammation binds (braces?) the joint, and hence those who have small collections of mucosities are not very subject to dislocations, which they would be if the mucosity had not been accompanied with more or less inflammation.

9. In cases of dislocation those persons who are not attacked with inflammation of the surrounding parts, can use the shoulder immediately without pain, and do not think it necessary to take any precautions with themselves; it is therefore the business of the physician to warn them beforehand that dislocation is more likely to return in such cases than when the tendons have been inflamed. This remark applies to all the articulations, but particularly to those of the shoulder and knee, for these are the joints most subject to luxations. But those who have inflammation of the ligaments cannot use the shoulder, for the pain and the tension induced by the inflammation prevent them. Such cases are to be treated with cerate, compresses, and plenty of bandages; but a ball of soft clean wool is to be introduced into the armpit, to fill up the hollow of it, that it may be a support to the bandaging, and maintain the joint in situ. The arm, in general, should be inclined upward as much as possible, for thus it will be kept at the greatest possible distance from the place at which the head of the humerus escaped. And when you bandage the shoulder you must fasten the arms to the sides with a band, which is to be carried round the body. The shoulder should be rubbed gently and softly. The physician ought to be acquainted with many things, and among others with friction; for from the same name the same results are not always obtained; for friction could brace a joint when unseasonably relaxed, and relax it when unseasonably hard; but we will define what we know respecting friction in another place. The shoulder, then, in such a state, should be rubbed with soft hands; and, moreover, in a gentle manner, and the joint should be moved about, but not roughly, so as to excite pain. Things get restored sometimes in a greater space of time, and sometimes in a smaller.

10. A dislocation may be recognized by the following symptoms:—Since the parts of a man’s body are proportionate to one another, as the arms and the legs, the sound should always be compared with the unsound, and the unsound with the sound, not paying regard to the joints of other individuals (for one person’s joints are more prominent than another’s), but looking to those of the patient, to ascertain whether the sound joint be unlike the unsound. This is a proper rule, and yet it may lead to much error; and on this account it is not sufficient to know this art in theory, but also by actual practice; for many persons from pain, or from any other cause, when their joints are not dislocated, cannot put the parts into the same positions as the sound body can be put into; one ought therefore to know and be acquainted beforehand with such an attitude. But in a dislocated joint the head of the humerus appears lying much more in the armpit than it is in the sound joint; and also, above, at the top of the shoulder, the part appears hollow, and the acromion is prominent, owing to the bone of the joint having sunk into the part below; there is a source of error in this case also, as will be described afterward, for it deserves to be described; and also, the elbow of the dislocated arm is farther removed from the ribs than that of the other; but by using force it may be approximated, though with considerable pain; and also they cannot, with the elbow extended, raise the arm to the ear, as they can the sound arm, nor move it about as formerly in this direction and that. These, then, are the symptoms of dislocation at the shoulder. The methods of reduction and the treatment are as described.

11. It deserves to be known how a shoulder which is subject to frequent dislocations should be treated. For many persons owing to this accident have been obliged to abandon gymnastic exercises, though otherwise well qualified for them; and from the same misfortune have become inept in warlike practices, and have thus perished. And this subject deserves to be noticed, because I have never known any physician treat the case properly; some abandon the attempt altogether, and others hold opinions and practice the very reverse of what is proper. For many physicians have burned the shoulders subject to dislocation, at the top of the shoulder, at the anterior part where the head of the humerus protrudes, and a little behind the top of the shoulder; these burnings, if the dislocation of the arm were upward, or forward, or backward, would have been properly performed; but now, when the dislocation is downward, they rather promote than prevent dislocations, for they shut out the head of the humerus from the free space above. The cautery should be applied thus: taking hold with the hands of the skin at the armpit, it is to be drawn into the line, in which the head of the humerus is dislocated; and then the skin thus drawn aside is to be burnt to the opposite side. The burnings should be performed with irons, which are not thick nor much rounded, but of an oblong form, (for thus they pass the more readily through,) and they are to be pushed forward with the hand; the cauteries should be red-hot, that they may pass through as quickly as possible; for such as are thick pass through slowly, and occasion eschars of a greater breadth than convenient, and there is danger that the cicatrices may break into one another; which, although nothing very bad, is most unseemly, or awkward. When you have burnt through, it will be sufficient, in most cases, to make eschars only in the lower part; but if there is no danger of the ulcers passing into one another, and there is a considerable piece of skin between them, a thin spatula is to be pushed through these holes which have been burned, while, at the same time, the skin is stretched, for otherwise the instrument could not pass through; but when you have passed it through you must let go the skin, and then between the two eschars you should form another eschar with a slender iron, and burn through until you come in contact with the spatula. The following directions will enable you to determine how much of the skin of the armpit should be grasped; all men have glands in the armpit greater or smaller, and also in many other parts of the body. But I will treat in another work of the whole constitution of the glands, and explain what they are, what they signify, and what are their offices. The glands, then, are not to be taken hold of, nor the parts internal to the glands; for this would be attended with great danger, as they are adjacent to the most important nerves. But the greater part of the substances external to the glands are to be grasped, for there is no danger from them. And this, also, it is proper to know, that if you raise the arm much, you will not be able to grasp any quantity of skin worth mentioning, for it is all taken up with the stretching; and also the nerves, which by all means you must avoid wounding, become exposed and stretched in this position; but if you only raise the arm a little, you can grasp a large quantity of skin, and the nerves which you ought to guard against are left within, and at a distance from the operation. Should not, then, the utmost pains be taken in the whole practice of the art to find out the proper attitude in every case? So much regarding the armpit, and these contractions will be sufficient, provided the eschars be properly placed. Without the armpit there are only two places where one might place the eschars to obviate this affection; the one before and between the head of the humerus and the tendon at the armpit; and then the skin may be fairly burned through, but not to any great depth, for there is a large vein adjacent, and also nerves, neither of which must be touched with the heat. But externally, one may form another eschar considerably above the tendon at the armpit, but a little below the head of the humerus; and the skin must be burned fairly through, but it must not be made very deep, for fire is inimical to the nerves. Through the whole treatment the sores are to be so treated, as to avoid all strong extension of the arm, and this is to be done moderately, and only as far as the dressing requires; for thus they will be less cooled (for it is of importance to cover up all sorts of burns if one would treat them mildly), and then the lips of them will be less turned aside; there will be less hemorrhage and fear of convulsions. But when the sores have become clean, and are going on to cicatrization, then by all means the arm is to be bound to the side night and day; and even when the ulcers are completely healed, the arm must still be bound to the side for a long time; for thus more especially will cicatrization take place, and the wide space into which the humerus used to escape will become contracted.

Back to Top | Article Outline


1It is certain that there is no such line in the works of Homer as they have come down to us, and it is singular that Galen takes no notice of it, so that it is important to explain how our author came to use it.
Cited Here...

Section Description

Patrick J. McMahon, MD; and Thay Q. Lee, PhD—Guest Editors

© 2002 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.