Q and A: Do Tight Corsets Cause Medical Problems?

03 Jun

Q: In my story, set in 1908 in Toronto, a 35 year-old women who has been using corsets strenuously for many years (perhaps for 20) suffers the ill effects of the tight lacing common at that time. I want the effects to be sudden and dramatic, to threaten her within an inch of her life, or kill her. However the result, she is rushed to the hospital and doctors try to save her. In the weeks leading up to the emergency event where it is discovered that the effects of the corset on her skeleton and her organs is the cause of the medical crisis, her face is showing the effects of the impending crisis. When the emergency occurs, her dress is torn off and the medical effects, or at least their exterior consequences, are revealed. One of the problems may be that she tied the corset in such a way that it flattered her figure as much as possible (the ‘wasp waist’) but that had dire bodily effects.

Whitney Smith, London, England


A: Medical problems with corsets are exceedingly rare but there are a few things that could happen. If the corset was so tight that it fractured a rib, it could puncture and collapse a lung––we call this a pneumothorax. Though this is not typically lethal, in 1908 it very easily could have been. Now we treat these with chest tubes—plastic tubes inserted through the chest wall into the space between the lung and the chest wall. The tube is attached to a suction device and left in place for a few days until the lung heals and re-inflates. These weren’t available in 1908.

Also a tight corset can restrict breathing so that the person does not take a deep breath for extended periods of time. This can lead to areas where the lung tissue collapses––we call this atelectasis. This can serve as a location for pneumonia to develop, which could be lethal, particularly in 1908 as there were no antibiotics available to treat this.

The binding effect of the corset could also cause chronic gastroesophogeal reflux, where acids are constantly pushed up into the esophagus. This happens in people who overeat and go to bed and then wake up with heartburn. With a corset this external pressure will keep pressing on the stomach and pushing the undigested food and acids up in the esophagus. This can lead to esophagitis––an inflammation of the esophagus. This in turn can lead to bleeding, which could result in death.

If the corset was extremely tight and the victim moved in certain positions, she could damage internal organs such as the spleen, liver, or bowel. The spleen, which sits in the left upper part of the abdomen, is particularly vulnerable to this type of injury. It is often injured in motorcycle and bicycle accidents and could be injured by a corset if the victim bent over suddenly. A ruptured spleen, liver, or bowel often causes severe internal bleeding that can be deadly.

Corsets can also cause a reduction in blood return to the heart through the major veins of the abdomen and lead to dizziness and fainting. Here the victim could fall down stairs or strike her head on the floor or furniture, leading to death from bleeding into and around the brain.

Your lady could also survive any of these events. If she had a collapsed lung, it could heal itself and she could do fine. If she contracted pneumonia, she could survive even without antibiotics. If she had a bleed from esophagitis, the bleed itself could stop on its own and she could do fine. If she ruptured an internal organ, surgery could be performed to repair the injured organ or, in the case of a ruptured spleen, to remove the spleen––the spleen is almost never repaired but rather is removed when damaged. We do not need it to survive and it’s very difficult to repair. If she struck her head and suffered bleeding into or around her brain, she could be unconscious for a few hours or a few days and yet survive even though there was no real medical treatment at that time for this type of injury. With a bleed around the brain–called a subdural hematoma–the one technique your 1908 doctor could employ would be the placement of what we call Burr holes (trepanning). This is simply opening a hole in the skull with a drill or similar device, which allows the doctor to remove the clot and relieve the pressure that builds in the brain with this type of injury. If a secondary infection didn’t arise your young lady could survive even this event.

This should give you several options for your story.


11 responses to “Q and A: Do Tight Corsets Cause Medical Problems?

  1. lemitchellrn

    June 3, 2012 at 7:57 am

    No wonder women were so prone to “the vapors”!


  2. Nancy DeMarco

    June 3, 2012 at 8:08 am

    Thank you for this (and every) post – lots of fodder here. 🙂

    Today, would burr holes still be used on a fresh injury? I was told a craniotomy would be performed, because burr holes don’t allow the surgeon to control the bleeding. And I really wanted to use burr holes, because it sounder so much cooler. 🙂

    And, with burr holes, are there multiple holes made? How big?

    Thank you so much.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      June 3, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Yes they are still used in emergency situations. It is best to do a full open procedure in an OR but sometimes the patient is so unstable and the pressure in the skull is rising so rapidly that immediate relief is needed. Here the burr hole might be done in the ER and then the patient taken to the OR for a more definitive repair.


  3. Teresa Reasor

    June 3, 2012 at 8:12 am

    It’s depressing to realize how long ladies have been slaves to fashion. I’ve had pneumonia three times and I can’t imagine doing anything that would prevent me from drawing a full breath.
    I always enjoy your blogs. Thanks for the post.
    Teresa R.


    • lemitchellrn

      June 4, 2012 at 6:00 am

      And let’s not even talk about shoes . . .


    • nikita

      February 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm

      It actually don’t affect your breathing at all, no matter how tight its laced.


  4. Jennifer (JC Page)

    June 3, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Thank-you for the article. I have heard horror stories on the “cage” corset…This was very extensive. Hope to read more articles in the future,
    JC Page


  5. nikita

    February 4, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Seriously? none of this is true, if people actually did their research they would realize that corsets are harmless, they may cause your organs to shift a little bit, but women who are pregnant also have there organs move to make room for the baby! Also, the lower ribs in your rib cage are flexible, so they can take the shape of the corset… and people back years ago didn’t actually take there waist in as much as people do today, they would take it in a few inches maybe if that. and even if they did I’m sure they wouldn’t die from it, there are people out there now that are wearing corsets and have awfully small waists due to corseting and there not dead?
    I’m not saying that having the worlds smallest waist is the most attractive thing out there either, but corseting is harmless, it is not painful, it don’t cause back pain, it lets people have a better posture.
    People who slouch are at more of a risk for injury than people who wear corsets. Do your research.


    • D.P. Lyle, MD

      February 4, 2013 at 12:50 pm

      Your opinions, though erroneous, are appreciated.



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