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It's commonly believed that the idiom "rubbing salt into the wound" is derived from a literal action of making things worse.

Wiktionary claims the literal act was done for torture:

Derived from the stingingly painful sensation of table salt deliberately being rubbed into an open, bleeding wound, as for torture, interrogation, etc.

A high reputation user at English stack exchange says

There's also the more mean spirited rub salt into the wounds, where the one who's currently winning (or has won) does take advantage of his enemy's weakness to inflict an even more crushing victory.

However a blog post titled The Irony of Rubbing Salt Into Wounds disputes this. It claims that salt in wounds is painful, but that it makes the wound better from a health perspective:

That is because when you have an open wound on your skin, it already hurts. When you add salt, it would sting so bad and hurt even more. ... Then I remembered the only the reason why I added salt to my wound was that it would actually help the skin heal faster.

In eras before modern hygiene, did putting salt into a wound make the wound worse overall, either by making the wound more severe, or by having no health effects, but increasing the pain of a wound?

  • 4
    Sodium Chloride (NaCl), or "table salt" is a antibacterial agent, so it might help to prevent infection. Salty water will cause liquids to move out of cells (whether those are human, or bacterial) when they come into contact with it. This process is called osmosis. If high enough salt concentrations force the osmosis, it can dehydrate cells and cause them to die. (This is also why salt can be used to preserve meat) Much evidence has been found that throughout history, salt was actively used in order to prevent infections of wounds. see [A taste for salt – Timothy Groote Jul 19 '13 at 8:35
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    It hurt like hell at least. So it FEELS worse, no matter if it's good for the wounds or not. I tried it when I was younger, after hearing the idiom... – Wertilq Jul 19 '13 at 9:11
  • @Wertilq I always heared that if it stings it cleanses out the wound. When I would get scrapes and wounds as a kid they would put some red disinfectant on the wound and it would also sting like hell. – Lyrion Jul 19 '13 at 9:51
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    @Lyrion true, but "rubbing salt into the wounds" doesn't say if it MAKES it worse or makes it FEEL worse. It just implies things get worse. If you're trying to induce pain, you don't want wounds that doesn't heal, you want them to heal as fast as possible so you don't kill what you're dealing pain to. I am just speculating and starting to get off topic though... – Wertilq Jul 19 '13 at 10:14
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    @Andrew: I read the first two quotes as equivalent - saying "Salt causes pain. It can be used to deliberately cause pain." I read the third quote as saying "Salt causes pain. Salt can be used to promote healing." I predict (without evidence) the most likely answer is both/all are true. – Oddthinking Jul 21 '13 at 2:57
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There is a spectrum of saline solutions that can be applied to a wound.

At one end, water is 0% saline. "Water is a hypotonic solution, which means it can cause cellular oedema and rupture under the influence of osmotic pressure (Cunliffe and Fawcett, 2002)." (Gannon)

0.9% saline is isotonic. "It neither donates fluid nor draws it away from the wound bed". (Gannon)

Seawater is approximately 3.5% saline. (Shoseyov 1998)

From (Bogart, 1993)

Hypertonic gels containing greater than about 0.9% salt up to about 15% of salt are non-cytotoxic and generally non-bactericidal. At salt concentrations of 16% or more, hypertonic gels of the invention can kill cells and bacteria in a wound and are preferred for that purpose. For extremely heavy-draining infected wounds, hypertonic gels of the invention containing 40% or more of salt may be preferred.

References

Bogart, Larry, et al. "Wound gel compositions containing sodium chloride and method of using them." U.S. Patent No. 5,271,943. 21 Dec. 1993.

Gannon, Robert. "Fact file: Wound cleansing: sterile water or saline?."

Shoseyov, David, et al. "Treatment with hypertonic saline versus normal saline nasal wash of pediatric chronic sinusitis." Journal of allergy and clinical immunology 101.5 (1998): 602-605.

  • So 100% concentrated salt water would be the best for healing cuts and wounds right? – Pacerier Dec 6 '13 at 13:47
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    @Pacerier "100% concentrated" means "all salt (solid salt) without any water". A 'saturated' solution is about 26%. The patent says, "Hypertonic gels of the invention contain higher concentrations of salt than those normally found in the tissues of the subject being treated, and include saturated gels as well as supersaturated gels in which some salt is present in the gel in the form of granules. In the case of hypertonic gels, concentrations greater than about 0.9% and ranging from about 1% up to about 60% or higher are used." This is not medical advice. – ChrisW Dec 8 '13 at 2:07
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    Western Medicine uses more commonly Magnesium Sulfate saturated solution, with the powdered salt of the same in a paste to pack deep wounds (and on the surface after stitching) as a disinfectant or to draw boils and carbuncles by osmosis, whereas sodium chloride solution is used as a wash for shallow wounds or grazes. – Duckisaduckisaduck Apr 22 '14 at 13:30
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    What is a "heavy-draining" wound? Am I even parsing that sentence correctly? – Anko Nov 29 '15 at 23:57

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