, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 11-20,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.
Date: 25 Oct 2012

The musculoskeletal abnormalities of the Similaun Iceman (“ÖTZI”): clues to chronic pain and possible treatments

Abstract

Background and Introduction

In 1991, a deceased human male was found frozen in a glacier pool in the Italian Alps in north west Italy, and is now carefully preserved in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology, in Bolzano, Italy. The bodily tissues of the 5,300 year old male (colloquially referred to as the Iceman or Ötzi) were well preserved despite damage related to freezing, and glacial movement. Associated articles of well-preserved clothing, tools, weapons and other devices were also present and have been studied in detail. Clinical examination and imaging investigations have also shown that the Icemen had experienced possible illnesses in his lifetime and had identifiable areas of arthritis and musculoskeletal injury. This report includes some key observations on the musculoskeletal state of Ötzi and reference to the involvement of tattoo markings. Some aspects about the aetiology of his abnormalities and inflammatory arthritis are considered along with possible treatments that he might have employed.

Methods and results

We (WFK and MK) undertook a clinical musculoskeletal examination of the Iceman, details of which with available photographs and radiographic imaging pertaining to the musculoskeletal findings of the Iceman are reported here. The skin of the Iceman has numerous linear carbon tattoos, which are not of a decorative type. These have been presumed to possibly be “medicinal” tattoos administered for therapeutic reasons and may have been used in acupuncture-like treatment of pain. Spinal imaging identified areas of spinal damage and our observations have provided clues as to possible sites of spinal initiated pain and hence sites for administration of the “medicinal” tattoos. We observed body areas of the Iceman, in which imaging demonstrated arthritis and other forms of long-term musculoskeletal damage, but which do not have adjacent or corresponding “medicinal” tattoos. We contend that the back and leg “medicinal” tattoos correspond directly to sites of chronic right knee and right ankle pain, and left thoracolumbar pain. They also correspond to lower lumbar and sciatic referred radicular pain which may have a contributory cause related to the presence of a transitional lumbar 5 vertebra. Using recent published data (Keller et al. in Nature Commun 3:698, 2012. doi:10.1038/ncomms1701) of the genome structure of the Iceman, we suggest some potential causes of the osteoarthritis or inflammatory joint injury may relate to presence of coronary heart disease (CHD) and Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) infection. We speculate on possible medical applications of natural products for self-medication.

Conclusions

These observations highlight several diagnostic features of musculoskeletal conditions in the Iceman with the possibility that tattoos may have been used for diagnosis or location of his painful states. The origins of his musculoskeletal conditions are unclear but there are indications that Lyme disease and CHD may have been factors. The associations or use of natural products may give insights into their applications at the time of the life of the Iceman.