Leeches have been used in medicine since the beginning of human civilization. They’ve been used to treat a variety of ailments, including 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. This keeps blood flowing to wounds to help them heal.
But leech therapy is seeing a revival due to its simple and inexpensive means of preventing complications.
Can Leeches Help with Diabetes?
The progression of diabetes can cause numerous problems that 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.
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 that faced amputation. 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 live mostly in fresh water.
- Leech therapy dates back as far as ancient Egypt, where bloodletting was believed to cure all kinds of conditions.
Other Uses for Leech Therapy
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, thereby improving circulation and preventing tissue death. The leeches leave behind small, Y-shaped wounds that usually heal without leaving a scar.
Because leeches are so 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:
- varicose veins
- skin problems
Leech saliva is also being tested as a possible treatment for cancer and for its potential to stop the spread of cancer cells. Animal testing shows that directly injecting leech saliva into dogs helps prevent the colonization of cancer cells.
Are There Side Effects?
Leech therapy is both easy and has a lower risk of side effects than other therapies. But don’t jump into leech-infested waters expecting miracles to happen. There’s a risk of bacterial infection, sometimes involving drug-resistant bacteria, so make sure to avoid leeches outside of a regulated environment.