Chainsaws Were Invented for Symphysiotomy – Not for Cutting Wood

Last modified on September 17, 2022
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a doctor holding chain saw

Contrary to common misconception, the chainsaw was not designed to chop wood; rather, it was invented by a doctor to aid in delivery. You’ve probably read the title of this sentence in your mind and clenched your knees together as you read it. But yes, the chainsaw was indeed originally invented to assist with childbirth. Before the common use of the caesarian section, all babies had to be passed through the birth canal. And that certainly makes sense.

When a baby can’t fit through the pelvis, or gets stuck, the ligaments and cartilage (and in extreme cases, the bone) of the pelvic region are removed to make room for the baby. This is called a “symphysiotomy”. 

Symphysiotomy – Pubic Symphysis Is Divided During the Procedure

The original treatment was done using a knife and saw. For the purpose of gaining access to a specific area, this procedure is typically performed under local anaesthetic during stage two of labor. However, since anesthesia was not available back then, and knowledge about human anatomy was somewhat lacking, patients had to endure quite a bit of pain during their recoveries.

Nowadays, with modern medicine and a more comprehensive understanding of human anatomy, this surgery is almost always done with the use of anesthesia, and the recovery is much less painful. Back in the 18th century, however, there was no general anesthesia, and the recovery was quite painful.

During that same time period, many women gave birth without the help of a doctor. If something went wrong, they would often try to correct the situation themselves. This often involved breaking or damaging cartilage and bone inside the pelvic area, which could lead to serious problems later in life.

The first chainsaw was devised two centuries ago in order to speed up the process of removing the pelvic bone for childbirth, making it easier and more efficient. It was driven by a hand crank and had a chain with little “teeth” (really tiny serrations). If you picture a huge, obnoxious machine capable of chopping down trees in an instant, this is a welcome change. It resembles more of a medical equipment than a tree-chopping machine.

In a “fully conscious surgery,” the terms “chainsaw,” “saw,” coming towards your “downstairs” are horrifying!

Osteotome, a Medical Bone Chainsaw Sabine Salfer/wikicommons

The chainsaw evolved from being used for other types of bone cutting operations and amputations in the surgical room, to a handy tool for getting things done when people started using it for other purposes. It got larger and more powerful and eventually it grew to be the monster we know today.

Cesarean sections are not always considered safe for the mother or the child. Indeed, it may be the only choice in some instances. Critics of this procedure especially in Ireland claim that it has left women with life-long pain and emotional trauma. The baby’s position and the mother’s physiology determine whether this technique is employed or not.