Cauterization is an ancient medical practice that is still in use currently. It involves creating burns on body tissue to either close wounds or stop bleeding, or to remove part of the body. People are most likely to think of medical doctors using this practice long ago to apply hot metal after amputation. This practice would close wounds and stop bleeding because the heat would make the blood clot. A related term, cautery, can mean placing a brand on a human, which was a practice that was also common for punishment, as decoration in certain cultures, or to mark humans as property.
One of the people recognized in the treatment methods using cauterization is the Andalusian physician, Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, who lived in the 10th century. He developed special tools called cauters for use to stop bleeding of arteries. Interestingly, there is some prohibition in Islamic thought, though it is not universally applied, that burning the body in this manner may be sinful.
In modern medicine, this practice is used with great frequency, but the methods have changed. Burning is usually accomplished via one of two routes, either by the use of electricity or with chemicals. When electrical pulses are used, this is called electrocauterization, and it’s often used to destroy tissues and make sure that small arteries or veins don’t bleed excessively from the removal of tissues. Certain surgeries, like the mastectomy, employ this method. Another common use of electrocauterization is through cardiac ablation, which can eliminate damaged tissue from the heart to restore a more regular heartbeat.
Chemical cauterization is also used, and although there is some concern that the skin might absorb some of the chemicals, substances like silver nitrate are still widely in use. Small growths, like warts or moles, may be burned off with such chemicals. One odd chemical used in this practice is cantharidin, which is produced by blister beetles.
Another method gaining in popularity is the use of lasers to remove tissue. Some medical professionals may prefer this method to chemicals or electrocauterization, since the removal of tissue can be extremely precise and localized. Improvement in this technology means that all methods for sealing or removing tissue are very effective and safe, however.