Casting around for a solution

I had to wear a plaster cast for a few days when I snapped my achilles’ tendon in 2014 after which it was replaced by a surgical boot.
The common herb Comfrey used to be used to make an early form of plaster cast

I’m lucky to have never had to wear a plaster cast for any length of time. The nearest I came to it was when I had a temporary one put on my lower leg in 2014 after having snapped my achilles’ tendon playing squash.

It was only in place for a couple of days until I had an operation to repair the tendon, after which I had to wear a surgical boot for several months. The advantage of a boot rather than a cast is that you can remove it when you need to bathe, or when you go to bed. I remember the cast being quite heavy, and the recurring frustration of itches deep down inside which you could only reach using a knitting needle (Disclaimer: don’t do that. You might hurt yourself). So anyone who has to wear a cast for a long time has my sympathy.

What I hadn’t asked myself, until I read Dad’s column from July 10th 1982, was how they used to repair broken bones before the invention of plaster casts. Did they even do it at all? Anyone who has broken something knows just how painful it is, and so the thought of no cast and no pain relief made me wince just a little.

Dad writes that the common herb comfrey was used to treat broken bones: ‘The root was dug up and grated into a kind of mash. Eventually, the mixture would set and was used in the same way that we use plaster today on broken bones. It would set literally as hard as wood.’ You still can buy a mixture known as ‘comfrey cast’, although if you do break a bone, then I suggest the best port of call in the first instance is A&E.

The herb’s reputation for healing is demonstrated in its traditional name, knit-bone, and if it is applied topically, it is good for healing aches, sprains and cuts, and for reducing inflammation in the affected area. However, it does contain a toxic chemical which can be absorbed through the skin, so you do have to take care when using it. It’s probably best to seek expert advice if you are interested in trying out this natural form of healing.

The art of setting injured limbs dates back as far as 2500BC, and a couple of wooden splints were found in Egyptian tombs from about that time. In the fourth century BC, Greek physician Hippocrates describes wrapping a broken limb using layers of bandages soaked in wax and resin.

Over the centuries, other materials were employed to make rigid casts, such as flour, egg white, vinegar, clay and gum. Starch-based casts eventually became the standard, and it stayed that way until the beginning of the 19th century when some bright spark decided to try using Plaster of Paris.

Plaster had been around for donkeys years, with the usual clever suspects, the Egyptians and Romans, using it to coat walls and sculpt statues. According to legend, King Henry III was so impressed with the smooth white walls that he saw in Paris when he visited in 1254, that he introduced the technique in England, and from then on it was called Plaster of Paris.

From the early 1800s, plaster would be poured around limbs encased by a wooden container, then left to set. Once it had, it was often so heavy that the unfortunate patient would be confined to bed until the bone was healed. By 1839, a much more manageable technique had been developed, where fresh warm starch would be mixed with plaster powder and applied to layers of linen strips which were wrapped around the limb in question. As well as being easier to manage, it dried much quicker, and no doubt was a lot lighter and more comfortable for the patient.

Although plaster is still used today, it is mainly reserved for situations where the bone is out of position, and the cast can be easily moulded around it. The downside is that it is still fairly heavy, and you can’t get it wet. If the broken bone is not too out of position, then you are more likely to be given a cast made out of fibreglass. Not only is it light, but it can be kept on in the shower.

Well, I’ll raise a glass to that!

Read more at Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 8th July and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 6th July 2022

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