Leeches in medicine
Updated: Feb 23
It is not surprising that leeches coming back to the medical field in the last decade. The effectiveness which they offer is huge. Dr. Maciej Paruzel plastic surgeon and father of modern MLT said: "...Sometimes the effects of such therapy are shocking. Lower cholesterol stabilized blood pressure, reduced migraine headache pain and tinnitus are just some examples...".
Leech therapy was used in ancient times in Ayurvedic Medicine, Tibetan Medicine, Egypt, and Greece. Probably already in the Stone Age leeches were used for bloodletting, as a habitat of demons or evil spirits that caused illness. In pre-Columbian America, the blood-sills were valued by the Aztecs, believing that evil spirits would leave human beings with them. In the Maya state, the art of dropping blood was in the hands of a special group of priests-healers. Notes regarding the medical use of leeches date back to the beginnings of civilization. In ancient Egypt, the use of leeches was as old as the pyramids. In the Middle Ages, the demand for leeches was so large that it almost contributed to the extinction of these animals.
Treatment with leeches consisted of cutting or pricking the skin and putting the leeches in place. In ancient Greece, blood was treated with infectious diseases. Blood was often bleed from the vein in the elbow joint or from other veins - on the foot, under the knee, and even under the tongue. This treatment was used by Hippocrates (460-377 BC) but did not give it special significance. The oldest scripture that mentions the leech is the Bible. In chapter 30, the parables of Solomon (verse 15) says: "The leech has two daughters: Bring! Bring! Three things are never satiated, four do not say: Enough. "
Hirudotherapy (Medicinal Leeches Therapy) is a scientifically proven treatment using medicinal leeches. Three varieties of leeches Hirudo medicinalis, Hirudo Verbana or Hirudo Orientalis have been used to treat patients for centuries. In the past, leeches have proved to be an effective treatment for a number of conditions including battle wound treatment. Currently, leeches may be used to assist in the treatment of abscesses, arthritis, glaucoma, myasthenia gravis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), thrombosis, musculoskeletal injuries, and some venous disorders. Medical leeches may also be used in plastic surgery and in some blood circulatory problems. During feeding, leeches secrete a complex mixture of different biologically and pharmacologically active substances into the wound. In sports injury, Hirudotherapy improves blood circulation and innervation of damaged areas, regeneration of damaged hands, swelling, stimulates rapid bone fusion and tendon regeneration: acute or chronic Achilles tendonitis, tennis & golfer elbow, frozen shoulder, fractures, sprains, dislocations, rupture of muscles and tendons, bruises and hematomas, degenerations diseases.
Hirudin is the prominent constituent of leech saliva. It is sometimes used to describe all the active constituents in the leech saliva. The name of hirudotherapy comes from the word „hirudo”, which means „leech”.
The compounds that can be found in leech’s saliva - commonly known as „hirudo-substances” – are called Salivary Glands Secretion (SGS). SGS contains more than 120 - 140 bioactive substances, some of them are still being examined. The knowledge of how do they work and what are the health profits is the thing that gives us new therapeutic opportunities.
Some of the Salivary Glands Secretion (SGS):
Analgesic compounds – are still being examined. They kill the pain in the area of leech bite.
Compounds with vasodilator properties - Hyaluronidase: prevents infection and improves the absorption. An enzyme that splits hyaluronic acid, lowers its viscosity and increases the permeability of connective tissue and so the absorption of fluids.
Hirudin – a potent anticoagulant that prevents blood from clotting by binding to thrombin.
Antibiotic substances – prevent infections.
Leeches in modern medicine and science
Reviving PubMed website I found many studies confirming effectiveness of leeches enzymes such us improving osteoarthritis of the knee, beating congestion swelling or even improve pain in cancer patient. Kalender et al (2010) published first report indicating possible activity of leeches in cancer pain when a 62-year-old male patient with synchronous renal cell carcinoma and leiomyosarcoma was admitted with severe pain in the lumbar region. The pain was refractory to radiotherapy, and systemic and epidural analgesic infusion. Two months the patient came to the clinic in good condition free of pain. The patient reported outpatient self-treatment with seven leeches to the lumbar region in the interim that resulted in complete healing of pain.
Koeppen et al (2014) confirm the effectiveness of Medicinal leech therapy in pain syndromes stating that: "A specific analgesic substance within the leech saliva is yet to be identified. Pain relief from leech therapy is rapid, effective and long-lasting in many conditions". Bäcker et al (2011) state that a single session of leech therapy was effective in relieving pain in the short-term and improved disability in intermediate-term. Leeches might be considered as an additional option in the therapeutic approach to lateral epicondylitis. A single session of leech therapy is more effective over the short term in lowering the intensity of pain over the short term and in improving physical function and quality of life over the intermediate term (4 weeks and 8 weeks, respectively). The limitations of this trial are the lack of blinding and the small number of patients. Leech therapy appears to be an effective treatment for chronic low back pain. Hohmann et al (2018) a single session of leech therapy is more effective over the short term in lowering the intensity of pain over the short term and in improving physical function and quality of life over the intermediate term (4 weeks and 8 weeks, respectively). The limitations of this trial are the lack of blinding and the small number of patients. Leech therapy appears to be an effective treatment for chronic low back pain.
Leeches in my practice
I have use Medicinal Leech Therapy in treatment of disorders such us IBS, RA, chronic joint pain, post-surgery pain, traumatic swelling, varicose veins and more. For example 48 years old, accountant, client suffered from Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) from 6 years, and developing new food-allergies every year, sleeping only 3 hours a day only after alcohol (only this put him to sleep), having simple food. After application of 10 leeches on the abdomen, the client got relief 3 days after treatment. Could eat more food again (after 6 years of starvation), exercise, sleep, relax easier and didn't need alcohol anymore.
34 years old, female, office worker, diagnosed with early onset of Rheumatoid arthritis. The client couldn't flex finger for 2 weeks. After one application of 4 leeches could bend fingers after 2 days, the major swelling subsided and after one week hand returned to normal look and function.
I also used leech for tooth infection (antibiotics didn't help) of 32 years old, male, a car mechanic. I applied one leech to the gum below abscess. The client didn't notice any pain during treatment. Next day in the morning was a pain - free. After treatment client still was advised to visit a dentist.
Summarizing leeches are effective in treating many difficult conditions nowadays. Scientists and doctors around the world are returning to using them due to the simplicity, effectiveness and fewer side effects than conventional drug therapy. However, the public is still skeptical of using leeches due to poor information coming from medical professionals informing about the potential benefits of such therapy. I believe that leech therapy could benefit many branches of medicine easing pain and suffering of many people.