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Harmful Healing
"If this is the cure, I'd hate to see the disease."
Flavor Text for Magic card "Maggot Therapy"

Meet the doctor. They may be the greatest, most talented surgeon in the world, or have a miracle drug that can cure any illness, or even a horde of tiny robots designed to heal with precision a scalpel can't even touch. They can patch up your wounds, treat your injuries, rescue you from the brink of death... and make you wish you were never born.

It's entirely possible to be great at your job and yet have absolutely no idea what you're doing. This trope is one of the nastier consequences.

Harmful Healing is what happens when a purported "cure" ends up causing more harm than good, either by accident or design, and often with horrifying results. Best-case scenario, the victim ends up Cursed with Awesome due to the botched healing process inadvertently enhancing their body (albeit with a bevy of unattractive, if not outright deleterious, side effects); worst-case scenario, the victim suffers a Fate Worse than Death. When unintentional, can be thought of as the medical equivalent to Nice Job Breaking It, Hero. When the "cure" is infectious, it's an accidental Synthetic Plague. Compare Came Back Wrong. Also compare Worst Aid, where the harm is caused by the would-be helper's stupidity rather than the "cure" itself.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Anime and Manga 
  • Franken Fran will keep her patient alive by any means possible. Quality of life, however, is beyond her comprehension.
  • In Blassreiter Gerd accepts a "secret experimental wonder pill" from a stranger, reasonably guessing that whatever it is, things aren't going to be any worse for a half-paralyzed racing champion ditched by his girlfriend. Turns out that it was not quite a correct assumption, even though he got to ride a bike again.
  • In Kara no Kyoukai Araya Souren repairs Fujino's cracked vertebrae and restores her sense of feeling. Yes, this is an evil act. Araya knows good and well why, and a lot of people wind up dead.
  • Tsunade of Naruto developed a form of this as her emergency backup, the Creation Rebirth Seal. While it instantly heals all her wounds, the downside is that the healing is based on rapid cell division. Due to the Hayflick limit, this means that each use shortens her lifespan and ages her body.
    • Naruto himself faces a variant of this. When he draws on the Kyuubi's tainted chakra it damages his body. At the same time, his Healing Factor prevents this from becoming critical, but the rapid healing works to shorten his lifespan like with Tsunade.
  • Doctor Reynold's medicine in Superior. It's not helped at all by the fact that the guy is a self proclaimed sadist.

    Comic Books 
  • Impulse's accelerated healing caused him problems when he was shot in the kneecap by Deathstroke— the flesh quickly regrew over the bullet, requiring intensive and painful surgery.
  • Healing in ElfQuest relies not on regenerating flesh so much as on reshaping it—a bit like Vicissitude. The Big Bad happens to be the most powerful healer alive. Draw your own conclusions.
  • When The Savage Dragon's bones are prevented from setting, they simply heal in whatever position they're already in, so having all his bones broken and being stuffed into a smokestack leaves his body horribly malformed, requiring that he have his bones broken again so they can be set properly.
  • In the Transformers series put out by Marvel Comics, a substance called "Nucleon" was developed on a robotic planet to serve as a miracle cure, but the patients who were treated with it went insane and murdered their doctors. Grimlock tries to access Nucleon in order to revive his deactivated Dinobot comrades and battles through a series of robotic zombies to get to the Nucleon. Once at the island, he learns that the patients were not hoarding the substance, but protecting others from it. Nucleon revitalizes mechanoids but has horrible side effects; in one instance, a patient was brought back to life along with the malfunction that killed him, and must now suffer through yet another slow, painful death. Grimlock tests Nucleon on himself and it results in paralysis, followed by the loss of his transforming ability.

    Film 
  • District 9 has the prawn fluid. Word of God states that it's a nanite solution that the prawns use as a general biological and mechanical fixit. It gets on a human, starts trying to heal a cut on his hand and it all goes south. Apparently it decided that being human was a repairable condition.
  • I Am Legend reveals that the cause of the virus that killed most of humanity and turned the rest into Darkseekers was a cure for cancer involving a modified measles virus.

    Literature 
  • Healing effects that mend broken bones may cause the bones to knit together and regrow before the fracture has been properly set, leading to pain and deformity. This happened to a character in one of Anne McCaffrey's Acorna books, among others.
  • The Sundering presents a character who'd previously been healed this way, and, as a combined preparation for war and punishment for disobeying his master, has the bones of his right arm magically restored to normal so he can wield a sword. Unfortunately for him, the original breaks must all be recreated before the damage can be repaired.
  • Magicians in The Black Magician Trilogy 'verse heal their wounds automatically when unconscious. As above, this can lead to bones healing in warped and deformed ways, which requires re-breaking and resetting by a properly trained healer.
  • In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Gilderoy Lockhart fixes Harry's broken wrist... by making the bones vanish entirely. Of course, this being the wizarding world, there's a cure for that too. (Maybe this is a common side-effect of botching a bone-mending spell?) It's called "Skele-Gro". Unfortunately, Skele-Gro regrows bones gradually, so the patient will have to endure a night or two of bone splinters forcing their way through muscle, blood and nerves.
  • Healing in The Wheel of Time normally causes mild discomfort approximately equivalent to being dunked briefly in ice water. Sometimes, when the ailment that is being Healed is too strong, it can give the subject seizures. And when Semirhage is Healing you, she always makes it very painful so as to remind you not to get injured again.
  • In Robin Hobb's Liveship Traders and Fool trilogies, the Skill can be used to accelerate healing or fix otherwise irreparable injuries, but it badly taxes the patient's body and drains their energy reserves.
  • The titular substance of the Coldfire Trilogy can be used to heal, but the process isn't pleasant.
  • In the Iron Druid Chronicles this is the reason why druids only practice healing magic on themselves. Healing magic can easily harm the subject before making him/her better and if you use druid magic to directly harm a living, sentient being the magic will kill you instantly. Only the druid's own body is an exception to the rule so druids have Super Healing for themselves but cannot even try to heal even the simplest cut on someone else without risking death.
  • In Eclipse, when Jacob's ribs get broken, the others have to keep re-breaking them because they keep healing incorrectly.
  • In the Newsflesh universe, two well-meaning scientists engineered viruses, one to cure the common cold, the other to cure cancer. Both did what they were intended to do. The problem is that when "Kellis flu" met "Marburg Amberlee", the result was a Zombie Apocalypse. Pesky side-effect.
  • In Maskerade, Granny Weatherwax does this to some injured thugs, involving old sewing supplues that were not intended for stitching people. Granny is Good Is Not Nice personified. She may have to heal people she doesn't like, but she doesn't have to make it pretty.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Because of their Healing Factor, both Sylar and Claire on Heroes have had their regrown flesh lodge foreign objects inside.
  • On an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, a treatment for a minor illness ends up turning the entire crew into primates, except for those who were conveniently away.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Empty Child", tiny nanobots get loose on Earth and start 'healing' everyone they encounter. Since they're alien in origin (and don't recognize humans), they take the first human they find as the default blueprint- it's a dead young boy with a gas-mask on! They start mutating everyone they can find into zombiefied gas-mask creatures, because they think everyone who doesn't look like that is 'sick'.
    • In The End of Time, the Master hijacks a medical device designed to cure entire planets at once by applying a set template, similar to the nanobots in The Empty Child. He alters the device so that it applies a particularly specific template to the entire Earth: his own body.
    • Also very common for a character to try to apply a simple treatment to a species it's not designed for. Taken to extremes with the Third Doctor's first appearance, where a surgeon wants to amputate his second heart, although in that instance The Doctor simply waits until he is alone, harrumphs and walks out.
      • He wasn't so lucky in the Seventh Doctor's last appearance, when a nurse tries to perform exploratory surgery because of his 'abnormal' heartbeat and winds up "killing" him. Worse, the anesthesia he was under at the time made the regeneration less than smooth.
    • Amy and Rory don't have that option in "The Girl Who Waited," where Amy ends up stranded in a quarantine zone on a planet in the middle of a plague outbreak: the plague is harmless to humans, but the cure is lethal to them. (The plague is also lethal to the Doctor, so he can do little but wait in the TARDIS and serve as Mission Control.)
  • Happens Once an Episode on House, or very nearly.
    • Usually because the doctors administered a treatment for an early diagnosis, which triggers symptoms that make it turn out to be wrong. Every episode, just about.
  • In a distant 7Days Alternate Future, a good Girl of the Week doctor's present-day invention of the cure for cancer wipes out all humanity.
  • The Nanobots in The Outer Limits episode "The New Breed" cure a man's inoperable cancer, return him to his physical prime, and give him a Healing Factor, but further testing prompts them to take a proactive approach and start adding various disfiguring mutations in order to pre-emptively protect him from any harm. These include eyes on the back of his head, gills, and an external ribcage that shocks anyone who touches it.
  • In Seinfeld, Kramer cures Elaine's back with some chiropractics, only for it to get worse the next day.
  • Shawn from The 4400 has healing powers that can be turned to the opposite side. Mostly he has control over them, but in one episode, he's being affected by a plague and tries to cure Maya's scraped knee, almost killing her. Since he's a good guy and only ever has used that part of his powers accidentally (the time with Maya and once when he was new to his abilities), no one actually dies from this until in the finale, when he has to kill his brother Danny.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Ork Doktors (Otherwise known as "Painboys" or just "Doks") have a delightful tendency to "eksperiment on da subjekts" when they are given their "anastetiks" (IE. knocked out with a hammer). To quote the book "An unfortunate ork who goes to the Dok to have his toothache fixed might wake up with a set of lungs that allows him to breathe water instead!!"
    • This is also how healing magic works for the forces of Chaos. Healing comes from Nurgle, the God of Plagues. It isn't so much "healing" as cancerous growths filling up the space left by the wound.
  • The Lazarus Health Center in the GURPS Illuminati University setting approaches their job not unlike Ork Doks. It's usually easier to just die and get resurrected.

    Video Games 
  • Heavily implied to be happening with The Medic's healing beam in Team Fortress 2, but since the game takes place within the course of the year (and almost everyone he uses it on soon gets gunned down anyways) there's not enough time to see the actual side effects.
  • Reflected in the mechanics of the first three Avernum games—attempting to apply first aid with no knowledge of the skill usually does damage, often killing the unfortunate victim.
  • The description for the Imperial Guard General's healing ability in Dawn of War II: Retribution states that it doesn't so much heal the recipient as fill him with a sense of well-being. It is also explicitly stated to have long-term side effects, but very few guardsmen live long enough to experience them.
  • Super stimpaks from the Fallout series cause damage after healing and can be used as a potential assassination tool.
  • Alluded to by the doctor's lines in Assassin's Creed II.
    • "I've concocted a tincture of lead and pomegranate! Ideal for the liver!" "A weekly bleeding is part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle!" "I've fresh caught leeches today!" An altogether likely Truth in Television for the setting's time-period.
  • The children's powder in Pathologic is one of the very few ways to reduce your infection level, but it reduces your health to critical levels.
    • There's "harmful buffing" as well, of sorts — many medicines that boost your immunity have an adverse effect on your health as well, though not nearly to the extent of the powder.
    • Though the powder is perhaps the most prominent example, due to the game's multiple survival meters, this happens for most healing items. Usually, something that restores one bar will reduce the other — for example, eating lemons will reduce your exhaustion and boost your immune system, but it'll make you hungrier. Painkillers will restore some health, but greatly increase exhaustion. And so on...
  • Urgot in League of Legends was a warrior brought back from death to exact vengeance on the one who killed him. As a spider-crab cyborg. As he tells you in champion select: "Eternal life... endless torture..."
  • According to a lore interview for World of Warcraft, undead (Being forsaken and death knights in this context) are still patched up by light, but since holy light is the undead's kryptonite, it causes them excruciating pain, likened to fire.
  • The novella that serves as a sequel to Infinity Blade says that the healing magic used in the game has a nasty side effect: in addition to healing wounds, it ages your body by the length of time it would have taken the wounds to heal naturally. In other words, each time you heal yourself, you're shortening your life span by a few months. Of course, since the main character is a Deathless, this is not a big deal for him.
  • The Imperium Amper from Dark Reign is a ranged healing unit that fires a dart that heals infantry to full health, but poisons them, slowly reducing their health over time until they die. It can be used against enemy infantry too...
  • Used in BioShock— one audio diary mentions that when experimenting with Little Sisters, often a broken bone had to be broken and reset as many as dozens of times before the doctors got it right. The Blessed with Suck part is that Little Sisters can still feel pain.
  • Grief Syndrome: Regenerating health consumes a character's Soul Limit. In most cases, this is either a moot point (you get KO'd in one shot and so need to have a new body generated anyway) or not a particularly worrisome issue (your characters start each stage with five-digit numbers of Soul Limit and so a non-KO hit eats only a small percentage of that total this is especially true on earlier laps). It comes around, though, if you're low on Soul Limit and get hurt non-lethally. Health automatically regenerates and eats Soul Limit, and so as soon as Soul Limit reaches zero, you die. Players would rather forego the healing and conserve Soul Limit (it normally depletes at about one per second) for the boss fight.

    Visual Novels 
  • In Saya no Uta, Fuminori Sakisaka is introduced as the unfortunate victim of a rare form of agnosia that was inadvertently caused by the brain surgery that saved his life after a horrific car crash. The agnosia distorts his perception monstrously, causing him to see, smell, taste, feel, and hear the world and people around him in a nightmarish and grotesque way. In fact, only one person appears normal to him as a result of his surgery: a mysterious girl known as Saya.
  • In Fate/stay night, the interaction of Shirou's Reality Marble and Avalon allow him to heal at high speeds by his body replacing any damage tissue with blades. One bad end involves this going out of control, resulting in blades erupting from his chest and causing lethal damage to his organs. During Heaven's Feel Archer's Reality Marble begins to intrude into his body, causing it to break down. His own Reality Marble generates blades to counter the damage, which then pierce his remaining flesh and cut him apart even more.

    Web Comics 
  • In the cast pages for Adventurers!!, it's mentioned that Karashi has a ninja healing technique which works by cutting off bits of the people to be healed. This is probably why Tesla refused to acknowledge her offer of "ninja healing" late in the comic.
  • In Girl Genius most attempts at Spark medicine follow this. One section follows the long story of Agatha curing another Spark of a disease. In the process she infects two other people, one of them being herself, everyone involved is electrocuted two or three times, all three of them have a rolling death lasting several minutes, and Agatha comes within forty-five seconds of exploding or melting. It works, but bear in mind that the three people involved are all very good Sparks, and fairly disciplined as they go.
  • Recent developments in Homestuck possibly show this due to Terezi being talked into having Aranea heal her eyes, when her blindness is a major part of her persona and isn't even a handicap to her due to being able to see in other ways. She says she considered it a big mistake the instant her vision was healed.

    Web Original 
  • SCP Foundation has an amulet with healing properties (SCP-427) that, if used improperly, will continue to "heal" the target even after bringing them up to perfect health. They eventually mutate into a nigh invincible mass of flesh with beyond human intelligence and a desire to make other people become like them.
    • There's also a fixing robot (SCP-212) that likes to rejuvenate your organs and makes other alterations based on its own unknown criteria. It's about as likely to make you able to breathe under water as just killing you. Employees are allowed to volunteer for treatment by it, obviously at their own risk.
    • There's also SCP-135, a girl with an aura that makes her and any other organic matter within a 10 cm radius immortal while causing rapid and uncontrolled cell growth— AKA cancer— within 2.25 m. Having developed this aura in utero, she is stuck in a fetal position and permanently encrusted in a constantly growing mass of plant, fungus, and microorganisms. The most that can be done for her is to have robots cut off some of the excess matter when it gets too big. She has full brain activity.
  • Ruby Quest makes use of this. The all-purpose 'Miracle Cure' has some... unfortunate side effects.
    • Essentially, it's some sort of Eldritch Abomination that can heal any injury or illness or even revive the dead, but the longer it's applied the more horribly mutated the subject will become. Mild cases may result in an extra pair of hands, More Teeth than the Osmond Family, or a third eye; a severe case turns the afflicted into... well... this or this.

    Real Life 
  • Heroin was originally marketed by Bayer Pharmaceuticals ("Heroin" was originally a Bayer trademarked name for the chemical diacetylmorphine) as a cough suppresant and a cure for morphine addiction. In a literal sense, it worked—people who took heroin were no longer addicted to morphine, and they probably weren't coughing as much either.
  • True in Real Life, but it takes a lot longer than in fiction for your skin to grow over something. And the less extreme version of this trope would be when things like bullets being lodged in people without being fatal.
  • Fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva or FOP, a disease that causes the body's self-repair system to replace damaged soft tissue with bone. It has the potential to eventually lead to And I Must Scream when the afflicted individual's limbs become too rigid to move.
  • If done slightly wrong, life saving techniques such as CPR and the Heimlich can injure or break your ribs, leading to several weeks of it being painful to breathe.
    • CPR will probably crack a a rib even when it's done right — not a full break, but some fractures are likely. And of course it's preferable to not being able to breathe at all.
  • Rarely, medication can give you Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS), or worse, TEN. Both diseases happen from the immune system abnormally reacting to medication, drugs, or infection. Something as simple as taking ibuprofen for a fever can cause you to get both.
  • Some antipsychotics can cause horrible physical symptoms like skin chapping in often-used places, constant shaking and suicidal urges.
  • Treatment for burns can be excruciatingly painful, especially when you get up to second-degree. Debridement and Escharotomy are common treatments, and are, respectively, to scrape the burned tissue of the skin and to slice the skin open in long incisions. They are as horrifyingly painful as they sound.
  • Melarsoprol, the treatment for sleeping sickness, is a toxic derivative of arsenic which can cause poisoning and has horrible and very likely side effects. Its nickname, "Arsenic in Antifreeze", is actually the basic recipe for the drug; two lethal poisons combined to make something used medically (though not the only one). If you try to inject it with standard syringes they'll melt in your hand, as the nasty fluid is corrosive - it needs glass apparatus to be handled properly. Oh, and it's fatal all by itself in around 8% of cases. And if that's not enough, injections with it are so painful that it's been compared to mainlining molten metal. However, since "Sleeping Sickness" unless treated always leads to permanent brain damage, coma, and death; the Godzilla Threshold dictates Melarsoprol is worth a try.
  • Cancer often comes about when cells try and repair damage done... and get damaged themselves.
    • The treatment for cancer often winds up being this as well, since chemotherapy is designed to kill cells that divide rapidly (like cancer cells) but unfortunately takes out many beneficial cells in the process, perhaps most well known being hair cells, which often begin to fall out, and extreme nausea and fatigue. You can also have someone who is getting chemotherapy for cancer but winds up with a deadly infection that their body would normally be able to fight off.
  • Treatments for serious conditions often seem designed to replace them with something less debilitating. This is especially true for mental illnesses whose symptoms are partially subjective to the point where there is often conflict over designating them as illnesses in the first place.
  • Ever had a wart frozen off with liquid nitrogen? Yeeoooowwww.
    • The technical term for this treatment is cryo-ablation and in layman's terms, it means, intentionally causing frostbite of the offending growth to induce blistering of frostbitten tissue that will (if done correctly) detach the wart from the rest of the skin, allowing it to be shed, so the patient can be rid of it.
  • Before modern suturing techniques were developed, the prevailing method of closing a major wound was cauterization, meaning the doctors literally burnt the wound shut.
    • Nowadays, blood vessels that are too small to be stitched are cauterized with an electrically charged instrument.
      • And in some cases, when a patient suffers frequently recurring nosebleeds, treatment is to chemically cauterize the sinuses.
  • Using alcohol as a disinfectant on wounds.
  • This kind of thing can happen with punctures, if the offending object manages to get deep enough into a fleshy part of the body; sometimes it's better to just leave it in there than to damage all the tissue it would take to dig it out.
  • Antidepressants, especially SSRIs, have a long list of side effects including sexual dysfunction (which is likely to be pretty depressing in and of itself) and suicidal tendencies.


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