Since the time of ancient Egypt, leeches have been used in medicine to treat nervous system abnormalities, dental problems, skin diseases, and infections.
Today, they’re mostly used in plastic surgery and other microsurgery. This is because leeches secrete peptides and proteins that work to prevent blood clots. These secretions are also known as anticoagulants. This keeps blood flowing to wounds to help them heal.
Currently, leech therapy is seeing a revival due to its simple and inexpensive means of preventing complications.
How it works
Medicinal leeches have three jaws with tiny rows of teeth. They pierce a person’s skin with their teeth and insert anticoagulants through their saliva. The leeches are then allowed to extract blood, for 20 to 45 minutes at a time, from the person undergoing treatment. This equates to a relatively small amount of blood, up to 15 milliliters per leech. Medicinal leeches most often come from Hungary or Sweden.
There are several situations in which leech therapy may be used. People who may benefit include those who risk limb amputation due to the side effects of diabetes, those who have been diagnosed with heart disease, and those who are undergoing cosmetic surgery in which they risk the loss of some of their soft tissue. The therapy has also been recommended to treat blood clots and varicose veins.
People with anemia, blood clotting conditions, or compromised arteries are not candidates for leech therapy. Children under the age of 18 years old and women who are pregnant are also usually advised to avoid it.
During a session, live leeches attach themselves to the target area and draw blood. They release the proteins and peptides that thin blood and prevent clotting. This improves circulation and prevents tissue death. The leeches leave behind small, Y-shaped wounds that usually heal without leaving a scar.
Leeches are effective at increasing blood circulation and breaking up blood clots. It should be no surprise that they can be used to treat circulatory disorders and cardiovascular disease.
Chemicals derived from leech saliva have been made into pharmaceutical drugs that can treat:
Clinical trials suggest that leech therapy is an appropriate treatment for the common joint disease osteoarthritis. The anti-inflammatory and anesthetic properties in the leech’s saliva reduce pain and tenderness at the site of the affected joint.
People with heart disease use leech therapy because of its potential to improve inflammation and blood flow. In the past few years, leech therapy has become an acceptable alternative therapy for people with vascular disease and disorders.
Cancer treatments using leech therapy are being explored because of the platelet inhibitors and special enzymes contained in leech saliva. While people with certain blood cancers are not advised to use leech therapy, it has been shown to slow the effects of lung cancer. Animal testing also shows that directly injecting leech saliva into mice helps prevent the colonization of cancer cells.
Leech therapy and diabetes
The progression of diabetes can cause numerous problems. These problems can lead to vessel diseases that limit or prevent blood from reaching the toes, fingers, hands, and feet. When blood flow becomes severely restricted, the affected tissue can die. This is the leading cause of amputation among people with diabetes. Losing a digit or limb due to complications from diabetes is a major concern for millions of people worldwide.
The most effective way to stop this process is to increase circulation to the affected tissues without the risk of blood clots. Research has shown that leech therapy can play a role.
The Hirudin substance in leech saliva thins the blood and keeps it from clotting. Since people with diabetes tend to have thicker blood, Hirudin can help relieve the pressure on the heart and cardiovascular system by thinning the blood. Researchers have observed positive outcomes in cases where Hirudin has been used for treat diabetes.
A recent case study showed how traditional Unani medicine, which includes leech therapy, was able to help save the foot of a 60-year-old woman with diabetes. Synthetic forms of leech saliva now exist, but researchers have discovered that using as few as four leeches in one session can help reduce the risk of amputation.
Leeches have become popular for preserving soft tissue and promoting healing after facial reconstructive surgery. In both old and new case studies, leech therapy has been shown to increase the chance of positive outcomes in reconstructions affecting the:
- digits (fingers and toes)
Leech therapy’s effect on blood clotting during and after these surgeries helps the body to heal more naturally and completely.
Leech therapy’s benefits for blood circulation has also led some people use leech therapy to treat baldness and hair loss on the scalp.
Leech therapy is both easy and has a lower risk of side effects than other therapies. However, there are some risks. There’s a risk of bacterial infection, sometimes involving drug-resistant bacteria, so make sure to avoid leeches outside of a regulated environment. For this reason, people who are immunocompromised by autoimmune disease and environmental factors are not good candidates for leech therapy.
If something goes wrong after a round of leech therapy, blood will ooze out of the area that has been treated and the site of the leech bite will not close. Sometimes leeches will try to move to another area of the body where you do not need treatment, causing unnecessary blood loss. On occasion, a person will discover during or after leech therapy that they are allergic to leech saliva. If complications such as these occur, you will know right away and will no longer be a candidate for this treatment method.
It makes some people squeamish to imagine leeches being used as a modern medical treatment. But more and more research is showing that there’s a reason why leeches were relied upon for centuries as an essential part of medical care. As we continue to find out more about the special properties in leech saliva, it may very well be that the treatment has even more practical use than we would have ever thought possible.