Were Irish ‘Sweating houses’ used to treat Arthritis?

I’m not much of a student of history, but I’m intrigued by glimpses into the way medicine was practised a few centuries ago. I guess there would be a few people who would be amused to hear that physicians in Ireland were widely known as ‘leeches‘ – presumably because of their expertise in the ancient Galenic practice of blood letting rather than their avaricious nature! The ancient physician went about on horseback carrying around a ‘fer bolg’ or medicine bag, full of herbal remedies.

Among the few remaining physical traces of the physician’s work are the stone ‘sweating houses’ known in Gaelic as Tigh ‘n alluis [Teenollish]. These small one-man huts were built with small entrance portals that people would have had to crawl through. They were dotted around Ireland, often in quite remote rural areas. Quite a few of them are still to be found in remote fields, but I don’t think any have been used for quite some time!

imageA fire would be lit in the hearth inside the sweating house  – using a cart-load of turf – and allowed to burn out leaving the stones hot for the sweating session the following day.


A great fire of turf was kindled inside till the house became heated like an oven; after which the embers were swept out; and vapour was produced by throwing water on the hot stones. Then the person, wrapping himself in a blanket, crept in and sat on a bench of sods, after which the door was closed up. He remained there an hour or so till he was in a profuse sweat; and then creeping out, plunge right into the cold water, after emerging from which he was well rubbed till he became warm. After several baths at intervals of some days he usually got cured of Rheumatism

So apparently this sort of treatment was prescribed for people with rheumatism. Sadly we don’t know if there was a secret therapeutic ingredient (although there has been plenty of speculation). I can’t imagine that many of my patients would agree to trudge up the hill, undress and crawl through a tiny entrance into a very rough sauna before struggling out and jumping in the local pond! My ancestors were clearly made of hardy stuff!

sauna_cabinI got to thinking about whether or not there had been some studies that have looked at sauna treatment for rheumatoid arthritis or AS. I know that there is a strong tradition of spa therapy (Balneotherapy) for arthritis and there may be weak evidence of benefit – but what about dry heat? A small pilot study into the potential benefits of an ‘infrared sauna’ for treating RA and AS was published in 2008 by Oosterveld et al. They used an infrared sauna cabin similar to the one pictured and found that although patients felt less pain and stiffness during the sauna, the benefits in pain and stiffness were not sustained. Of course, the study did not include the post-sauna dip into an ice cold Irish peat bog puddle – which could well have been the secret ingredient! I note, with approval, the authors’ use of stiffness as an outcome and their use of the little used EPM-ROM scale for quantifying range of movement. Sadly, there was no sustained improvement in pain or stiffness or range of movement.

So, do you think that the ancient Irish physicians were right about the benefits of the sweating house – or can you prove them wrong?

Philip Gardiner

Wannabe Irish Leech-Doctor
(in search of a sweating house and some good hungry leeches!)

Further reading: A Social History of Ancient Ireland http://www.libraryireland.com/SocialHistoryAncientIreland/II-XIV-4.php

Isomäki H (1988) The sauna and rheumatic diseases. Ann Clin
Res 20:271–275
Nurmikko T, Hietaharju A (1992) Effect of exposure to sauna heat
on neuropathic and rheumatoid pain. Pain 49:43–51

4 thoughts on “Were Irish ‘Sweating houses’ used to treat Arthritis?

  1. Interesting blog Mr Gardiner, unsure if you’re the same consultant practising c.1996 at AAH, or perhaps a contempory, such is the memory!
    Enjoyed this article for the conventional wisdom deployed by the ancients in using Carboniferous limestone huts (effectively fossilised skeletal bones) therapeutically for their own bones! Infused with creosote from the turf fire, I’m sure it worked wonders for their fleas and skin ailments too 🙂

    1. One and the same! Thanks for sharing your insights. I would love to hear more about the medical knowledge and folklore that prevailed in Ireland a few hundred years ago.

  2. Terrific you’re still around!
    Rural Ireland certainly has a cultural association with closely guarded traditional meta-physical style healing and cures,  better explained perhaps as quantum physics against the roles of consciousness and behaviour, Many practices are now obsolete or lost never to be understood, being replaced by more exact sciences thankfully.
    Most, at best, were perhaps little more than fragments of evolved Druid practices imbued with crude herbalism, or at worst macabre deeds.  All essentially requiring a modus operandi or superstition in equal measure.
     Only this year I read how people would submerge themselves within a Whale corpse, as a cure for rheumatism, the warm oily blubber, post death and the moderate compression experienced, delivering some form of therapeutic effect apparently.  The following less diabolical oral history may be of interest in that; most rural Irish households weren’t without a ‘cure all’, for example  ‘Red flannel’ a light woven material  of bright Red on the spectrum of colour with a luminance rivalling that of infra-red under exposure to sunshine or fire glow, this scarce material had a unique mixture of finest wool, warped with linen yarn and applied to the afflicted area, producing a tandem action within the natural fibres, the wool; a warming effect and the linen a wicking effect,  managing the inflammation at site with a therapeutic effect for the condition but little heard of anymore since the birth of modern pain relief and collapse of the textile industry on these shores.
    Of course the other more favoured  ‘topical’ concoction was the application of pure alcohol from the first distillation of the Poitín (Poteen) Still, said to be 100% -90% proof! burning ice blue in colour when ignited and too lethal for consumption undiluted. The illicit distillation was of course bottled and warmed to maximise the evaporative effect before being applied over the painful area, which I assume acted in some form as an external anti-inflammatory in effect drawing heat from the afflicted area as it dried and evaporated,  it wouldn’t surprise me an iota if there were today some rural famers still testing this method, as any livestock market could attest. 
    At one period these would have been widely practiced among the coastal and island communities of west Donegal,  who in their reflective wisdom held, that the use and contamination of saline sea water, domestically relied upon for laundering their blankets, somehow predisposed them to rheumatism,  modern molecular chemistry of course only proving today that an ionic molecule of sodium chloride actually attracts a double molecule of water* increasing the damp effect and having other possible potential risks to health, however for them, the fabric of life affected everything.

    Having a keen interest in the use of Calcium Hydroxide (Natural Hydraulic Lime) used in traditional heritage building projects, essentially formed from those calcified skeletal remains sedimented into limestone rock, having been fully calcined into a suitable structural medium, the variables which lead to its’ deterioration and durability, can all be narrowed down to; abrasion, acids, demolition, porosity and weaknesses in the glacial sands and fragments which bind it together with the aluminates and spectrum of silicates across the chemical distribution that provide its strength and protection against failures. If only bones could be so easily understood in their bio-organic state.

    1. Fascinating insights! I think I’ve heard of the whale carcass cure but I hadn’t heard about the salty clothes theory. The evapouration of alcohol certainly has a potent cooling effect that would offer some relief to inflamed joints.