Elephantiasis therapy, causes and healing

Elephantiasis therapy, causes and healing

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We also know elephantiasis (elephantiasis) as "elephant man disease". Parts of the body enlarge extremely as if, for example, those affected have legs "like an elephant". The externally visible genitals often swell, for example, until the scrotum resembles an inflated balloon. The cause is a congestion of the lymphatic fluid.

The disease can be acquired or congenital. Strictly speaking, acquired and congenital elephantiasis is not the same disease, but a collective name for similar symptoms of different diseases.

Elephantiasis tropica

Elephantiasis tropica is an advanced stage of various infections. Often it is caused by roundworms such as Filaria malayi, sometimes leprosy. The worms are transmitted by mosquitoes. With the mosquito bite, they enter the lymphs, nest and thus trigger a chronic inflammation, which in turn leads to a lymphatic congestion. Due to this lymphatic congestion, the skin hardens and its surface enlarges extremely.

Especially in countries in tropical Africa, you should therefore sleep under a mosquito net and wear a mosquito hat in wetlands where a net covers the skin of your face. In this way you protect yourself against malaria and the sleeping sickness transmitted by Tsetse flies.


Cancer can also lead to "elephant skin". The tumors close the lymphatic vessels directly in the lymphatic system and the same can happen due to metastases from primary tumors located elsewhere. Cancer treatment can also indirectly lead to an elephant disease. Often, the lymphatic system must also be removed when the surgeon cuts out metastases.

Caution is advised: if elephantiasis develops as a result of cancer therapy, carcinomas can form on the closed lymphs. Such cancers usually grow very quickly, and doctors can only save patients' lives by amputating the affected limb, if at all. This form of cancer following elephantiasis quickly forms many metastases, and so often only palliative medicine is possible.

Elephantiasis congenita hereditaria

This form of elephant disease is innate. Parts of the body swell here in infants because the affected genetically have little lymphatic drainage.


Elephantiasis can usually be seen by the doctor at a glance, but not its cause. If nematodes are the trigger, the doctor takes a tissue sample and can identify it at the latest under the microscope, but also with the naked eye.


Neither acquired nor congenital elephantiasis is contagious. The advanced damage can often not be corrected, but the symptoms of lymphatic congestion can be alleviated. However, therapy is uncomfortable: those affected have to undergo lymphatic drainage several times a week and wear permanent compression bandages. If the skin is overstretched due to the swelling and now hangs limply, plastic surgery often only helps. However, this does not bring optimal results: Even if the skin is tightened, it does not regain its old "freshness" and elasticity, but remains hardened.

The elephant man

The symptoms summarized under elephantiasis were made known by the affected Englishman Joseph Carey Merrick (1862-1890). At the time, people suffering from this disease were exhibited as questionable “sensations” in freak shows alongside women with a “beard” or short stature, between the “fattest man in the world” and the “polar bear, the horror of the Eskimos”.

Merrick looked perfectly normal as a toddler. Since the age of 5, however, his skin has deformed. As a teenager, Joseph worked at Messrs. Freeman's Cigar Manufacturers, but had to quit the job because soon he could no longer roll cigars with his deformed right hand.

A “monster” at the fair

With his “manager” Tom Norman, he made his suffering into a living. The two romped through the fairs, where Merrick presented himself as a "monster". Doctor Fredrick Treves saw him in London in 1886, examined him and published an article about the "elephant man" in the British Medical Journal. The British authorities prohibited Merrick from posing as a monster, so he traveled to Belgium, but returned in December 1886. In London, street thieves robbed him of his £ 50 income, today that would be several thousand euros. He turned to Treves in need and he got a place in London Hospital. Merrick was now a celebrity and a Joseph Merrick Fund was founded. This financed him a long-term stay in the clinic.

No mental disorder

Like many people who are physically handicapped by an illness, Merrick also believed many contemporaries to be mentally inferior or even mentally ill. This was also because his language was very difficult to understand. It was not a developmental disorder, but the deformities caused by the lymphatic congestion put pressure on the tongue and larynx, and it was therefore difficult for him to articulate. Treves emphasized that Merrick was a very intelligent person and a gentle man.

Merrick died on April 11, 1890, unexpectedly, probably after a stroke or heart attack. Because of his deformities, he could only sleep in a crouch. The dead man was lying on his back in bed, which Merrick had never done. In the supine position, his heavier head sank back and pulled the windpipe. This was probably the cause of his death. It is still speculated whether Merrick put an end to his life in this way. This will not be argued or refuted, but despite his deformities, Merrick did not suffer from depression and was considered a happy person.

Jack the Ripper - an elephant?

Shortly after his death, the first rumors began to circulate that Jack the Ripper, the London woman killer, was Merrick. But these can be booked under the preference of the Victorian England for everything monstrous: Jack the Ripper acted "like a monster", Merrick looked "like a monster".

Wrong projections

The idea that criminals are physically deformed was, on the one hand, a literary stereotype: Shakespeare portrays the English king Richard III as a born monster in every respect. From birth, a hunchbacked dwarf, this terrible look fits an entirely malicious character. While Macbeth's thirst for power turns him into a criminal and ultimately destroys his pathological ambition, Richard does not go through any development but embodies the abysmal evil. The Christian figure of the devil is also characterized by all the attributes that contemporaries regarded as ugly: goat's feet and horns, ape-like facial features, humps and limbs.

Propaganda and lies

However, historical research has shown that Richard III was anything but a cruel king, but implemented social reforms that benefited the poor. The bad image gave him the Tudors, who literally slaughtered him, the last of his sex - Richard died in battle and he died as a hero. The Tudor thieves had only one way to legitimize themselves - tyrant murder. That is why they deformed good-natured Richard into a despot. Shakespeare then added a repulsive exterior. A plastic reconstruction of his facial features recently proved the opposite: despite a slight hump, Richard was a very attractive man.

Evil has no face

To impose a special physiognomy on criminals was and is a fallacy of our associative thinking. There is no connection between physical disabilities and criminal energy. On the contrary, the “quick thinking”, our wrong projection, leads to the fact that physically attractive criminals are particularly successful in investigating their crimes, while kind-hearted people with physical deformities also suffer from stigmatization.

Rumor of Merrick as Jack the Ripper was a typical "robber gun" that lacks any criminal basis. Jack sliced ​​his victims open with surgical precision and skilfully removed the organs from them. Because of his disabilities, Merrick was not even able to roll cigars, let alone make fine cuts with a scalpel. In addition, a person who walked the fair as a “monster” would also have attracted attention in disguise in Whitechapel, especially since the first murders all of London had been looking for “conspicuous” people.

What did Merrick suffer from?

Merrick's disease was obviously genetic. The disease changed his skin and deformed his bones. The head, legs and arms were extremely enlarged. The left hand remained normal, so he was able to cope with everyday life to some extent. The doctors at the time assumed that Merrick was suffering from elephantiasis. As I said, this diagnosis describes symptoms of various diseases and until today it is not clear what disease it was.

Ashley Montagu believed in 1971 to have recognized genetic neurofibromatosis, and in 1986 Proteus syndrome was considered the cause of the malformations. The difference to neurofibromatosis is that neurofibromatrose only affects nerve cells. Merrick's tissue was also damaged.

A gene mutation?

Studies on Merrick's genome, led by Michael Simpson at Guy’s Hospital in London, have been ongoing since 2013. Simpson suspected that Merrick had a unique mutation that was not inherited. More specifically, Merrick is said to have altered the AKT1 gene, a gene that regulates growth and affects cell death. If the gene can no longer fulfill these functions, tissue malformations are the result. Simpson diagnoses 20 cases of this extremely rare mutation in three years. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


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ICD codes for this disease: B74ICD codes are internationally valid encodings for medical diagnoses. You can find e.g. in doctor's letters or on disability certificates.

Video: The Miracle Elephantiasis Treatment. HORROR STORY. River Monsters (August 2022).