07 June 2010

Magical maladies in the real world

Harry Potter fever has hit South Africa. We look at some of the injuries and ailments that affect key characters in the series - and put a muggle spin on things.


Harry Potter fever has hit South Africa. This week, many muggles* will be charmed by their favourite wizard heroes on the big screen. And on the 21st of July, the much-anticipated seventh – and final – book in the series will be released.

While we’d love to speculate on whether Dumbledore will make a comeback, whether Harry will give up his life in order to save the world from Voldemort, and whether Snape is a goodie or a baddie, we’d rather not.

As always, Health24 takes a health angle on things. We look at some of the ailments that affected five key characters during the first six years of Harry’s school years, their muggle equivalents and possible cures:

Hermione Granger
Petrification = locked-in syndrome
In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry’s loyal friend Hermione Granger correctly identifies the creature hidden inside the school’s Chamber of Secrets as a basilisk – a giant serpent that has the power to cause death with a single glance. She herself becomes a victim and is petrified (put into a cold, lifeless, paralysed state) before she can alert her friends.

The muggle equivalent of petrification is “locked-in syndrome”. This is a rare condition in which a muggle is conscious and able to think, but is so severely paralysed that communication is possible only by blinking the eyes. It can occur with severe peripheral nerve paralysis or with certain acute strokes.

While a potion made from the adult mandrake root can help petrified wizards, there is no known cure for locked-in syndrome in muggles. Stimulation of the muscle reflexes with electrodes can, however, help some muggles regain a certain degree of muscle function.

Gilderoy Lockhart
Memory loss = amnesia
Gilderoy Lockhart, a self-loving celebrity wizard, was not very popular among the staff at Hogwarts, where he taught a course in Defence Against the Dark Arts.

In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Lockhart turned out to be a fraud, admitting that he stole the experiences of other wizards for the many books he wrote and used a memory charm to make them forget.

Eventually, this trick backfires on him when he becomes the victim of severe memory loss.

In muggle terms, this is known as amnesia – a total or partial loss of memory which can result from disease, physical injury, drugs or psychological trauma. So-called “anterograde amnesia” is loss of memory for the events following trauma, while “retrograde amnesia” is loss of memory for events preceding the trauma. Some patients, like Gilderoy Lockhart, experience both types.

Muggle treatment of amnesia depends on the cause and differs for every individual. However, regardless of the cause, cognitive rehabilitation can help muggles cope with memory impairment. The staff at St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies would no doubt consider this treatment method for wizards as well.

Sybill Trelawney
Terminal airhead = pneumocephalus
This Hogwarts staff member, who teaches Divination, is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. Her apparent inability to correctly predict future events and her eccentric manner made her unpopular with Harry, Ron and Hermione, who have little respect for her and believe she is a terminal airhead.

Interestingly, being a terminal airhead can have serious consequences in the muggle world, where the condition is known as pneumocephalus – the presence of air within the skull. This is usually the result of a fracture passing through one of the air sinuses.

This condition can be detected by ordinary X-rays of the skull, or by CT and MRI scanning. Although there’s no cure for Trelawney’s airheadedness, pneumocephalus is mostly managed with surgery in muggles.

Remus Lupin
Werewolf syndrome = lupus
Remus Lupin is a friend of Harry’s and a member of the Order of the Phoenix, and was a popular lecturer at Hogwarts, where he taught a course in Defence Against the Dark Arts. When he was young, Remus was bitten by the vindictive werewolf Fenrir Greyback. As a result, he became a werewolf himself. His last name, "Lupin", is derived from "lupus", which is Latin for "wolf".

In medical terms, “lupus” refers to any of several chronic skin diseases, such as lupus erythematosus, lupus verrucosus and lupus vulgaris. Although the origin of the disease name is uncertain, there is the belief that the vicious injuries which can be characteristic of this group of diseases bring to mind the bites of wolves.

For example, lupus erythematosus is a chronic inflammatory disease of connective tissue, affecting the skin and various internal organs. Typically, there is a red scaly rash on the face, affecting the nose and cheeks.

While there’s no cure for Lupin’s werewolf syndrome (even though certain potions can help to prevent transformation), muggles with lupus erythematosus can be treated with corticosteroids or immuno-suppressive drugs.

Harry Potter
Intense headache / aching of scar = migraine
Our hero Harry’s headaches started when he was 11 and became worse as he grew older (and Voldemort grew stronger). He experiences “a needle-sharp pain that sears across his scar” with his head feeling as though it’s going to “split in two”. At one stage, the pain in the scar on Harry’s forehead is so severe that his wand slips from his fingers and he retches.

According to two researchers from the New England Center for Headache in the US and the Imperial College of London in the UK, Harry’s horrible headaches meet all but one of the criteria for migraine. They include pain often but not always on one side of the head (Harry’s headaches originate in the lightning-shaped scar on the side of his forehead); nausea and vomiting (the retching); and disabling pain (Harry losing his wand).

The only criterion Harry doesn’t meet is the duration of the headache, according to Harry’s headaches usually last only a few minutes, while muggle migraines can endure for hours. Regardless, the researchers give Harry the diagnosis of “probable migraine”.

Muggle treatment of migraine may involve medication, stress management, getting proper sleep, exercising and avoiding food triggers.

(Carine van Rooyen, Health24, July 2007)

*Muggles are humans who aren’t members of the magical community.


  • (
  • Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary
  • The Merck Manual of Medical Information: Home Edition
  • Lim, ECH, Pomfrey, PM, Quek, AML, Seet, RCS. (2006) Interesting In- and Outpatient Attendances at Hogwarts Infirmary and St Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies. Annals Academy of Medicine. Singapore. 25:127-9.
  • (
  • Encyclopedia of Speculative Fiction (

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