Does Leech Therapy Really Work?
Dating back more than 5,000 years ago to ancient Egypt, leech therapy has been used the world over to cure ailments ranging from headaches to fevers to flatulence.
The correct term for using leeches in a medicinal fashion is hirudotherapy, and it literally can – believe it or not - perform medical miracles. The humble leech plays a big role in reattaching limbs and promoting healing, thanks to this unpleasant-looking creature’s gift for promoting blood flow.
Using leeches in surgery began in the 1980s. Leeches are parasites, and have an enzyme in their saliva which when released stops the host’s blood from clotting. It also acts as an antiseptic, and can help to promote a feeling of numbness and relieve pain.
Helping with SurgeryOne of the first people to use the leech for surgical purposes was a Harvard doctor back in 1985. He was finding it difficult to reattach the ear of a small patient because the veins in the ear were so tiny and therefore kept clotting. Using a medicinal leech to help with the blood flow proved to be the saving grace, and the ear was saved.
More than 20 years earlier, two Slovenian surgeons made headlines when they pioneered "leech-assisted tissue flap surgery". They credited their usage of leeches to a Parisian surgeon who used leeches in 1836 to help restore blood circulation after nose reconstruction surgery.
Leeches are now known to help relieve venous congestion, which is helpful when it comes to transplant surgery. Leeches also help nourish bone tissue when a limb has to be amputated, and they stop swelling and allow fresh blood to enter the reconnected limb, so it stays alive.
In trials, leeches have also proved useful when it comes to treating patients with osteoarthritis, as they help relieve pain and stopped swelling when placed on the knee. And they are also occasionally used in breast reconstruction as well.
Detoxification CureIn the 19th century people used leeches, which are actually worms, to get rid of “bad blood” and replace it with healthier stuff. Leeches were stuck on to the bodies of ill people in a blood-letting practice that in some countries still continues.
If the idea of having a parasite suck out your blood appeals, there is no shortage of places to have this therapy carried out. Today, this form of alternative medicine is performed in fancy health spas in the West as a detoxification cure. The leeches replace old blood with new, detoxified blood – blood that has its natural anticoagulant in it - that is said to be better for you.
Actress Demi Moore is a big fan of leech therapy herself, having tried it out as part of a “cleansing” she underwent at a spa in Austria. Recently she told US talk show host David Letterman that having leech therapy was the fulfilment of a long-held dream.
“I feel like I’ve always been someone looking for the cutting edge of things that optimise your health and healing,” she told Letterman. “These aren’t just swamp leeches, these are highly trained medical leeches. These are not just some low level scavengers; we’re talking high level blood suckers.”
British FarmingOne of the biggest advocates of medicinal leeches was American Roy Sawyer, who started the first modern leech farms in the world – in the UK. Called Biopharm, today it provides 50,000 of the creatures to hospitals every year – around the world. They are produced in a sterile environment and promise to be virtually free of infection.
Leeches are not for everyone, though. Not everyone wants a blood sucker attached to them, and sometimes they attach themselves to the wrong part of the body. Occasionally they have even been known to get lost in one orifice or another, which is not a very pleasant thought.
That’s perhaps why a mechanical leech was invented in 2001, a machine that does the job a leech can do, without the disgust factor. It works in much the same way as a leech does, sucking out blood and distributing an anticoagulant at the same time.
While live leeches drop off the body when they are satisfied, a mechanical leech can keep on sucking until the job is done.