Medical Microfiction: Opisthotonos

“Mixed Media”

You could recognize the sculptor’s exquisite golden nudes by their unusual pose: arched back, body balanced on the tips of the fingers, toes, and the crown of the head.

When asked what inspired him, the artist would grin enigmatically and reply, “Each piece undergoes its own unique transformation.”

Back in his studio, the sculptor returned to work. He approached the cages with a sharp, rusty nail. Each contained a model in progressive stages of the disease. Some already showed signs of lockjaw.

“This won’t hurt much,” he promised, puncturing the sole of each foot. “The gilding process… now that’ll hurt.”

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Painting showing opisthotonos in a patient suf...
Painting showing opisthotonos in a patient suffering from tetanus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lot of medical terms are words for things you hope you’ll never experience in real life. Things you don’t want ANY human to experience. But it’s disturbing to think that if the word exists, it probably happened to someone. And it happened to enough someones that it was worth a physician’s time to make up a word for it.

That’s what I thought when I learned about the tetanic spasms. The condition of tetanus arises when a bacterium called Clostridium tetani infects your central nervous system and produces a neurotoxin. This neurotoxin causes your skeletal muscles to contract without releasing, which means that your body twists and arches into weird positions without your consent. You’re frozen in that position for minutes at a time. Lather, rinse, and repeat for a month, if you don’t die first.

Interestingly, the ancient Greeks gave names to the three unique positions that tetanus sends the body into. There’s opisthotonos, where your back arches and your feet dig into the ground so that you’re sort of a human table, balanced on your head and toes. There’s emprothotonos, where your body arcs to the side. And finally, there’s orthotonos, where you stretch out in a straight line.

Tetanus bacilli (clostrium tetani)
Tetanus bacilli (clostrium tetani) (Photo credit: Sanofi Pasteur)

It’s terrifying to realize that these spasms turn your body into an object of sorts. Your muscles are no longer under your control. You’re human furniture, at the will of the neurotoxin until it fades, or until your muscles give out under the strain. That’s horrifying. And so that’s the angle I took with today’s story: a creative madman turns a disease into art, to the detriment of his human models.

Moral: keep your tetanus boosters up-to-date!

What’s the price of art? Do you believe the old saying that you have to suffer for your art in order for it to offer something genuine?

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One thought on “Medical Microfiction: Opisthotonos

  1. Wow, what an interesting piece! What an interesting piece!

    As a long time writer (I started writing in middle school and have been writing since then), with some writers, artists, etc., unfortunately, having a torturous soul makes them a profound and/or prolific writer.

    Take Virginia Woolf who suffered severe mental illness the majority of her life. Look at what she left behind: writing that is breathtaking and also innovative. However, I believe because she suffered mental illness a lot of her writing came from that suffering.

    In most cases, writers who have mental illness are some of the most gifted writers around. They usually have emotional intelligent insight into what they are crafting. Yet, it becomes very unfortunate when they can no longer fight their demons (along with their mental illness) and succumb to taking their lives like Woolf did.

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