Have you ever seen a leech? A thick slimy creature with a toothy, sucker mouth? The thought of having this repulsive creature sticking on one’s skin is enough to make most people shrink away in disgust.
However, the fact of the matter is, a procedure called leech therapy does exist and many people worldwide are trying it out. Let’s talk about why.
Leech therapy – also known as hirudotherapy – is the application of leeches to skin tissues where blood flow might have reduced or stopped. Leeches secrete anticoagulant peptides that help to prevent blood clotting. Leech secretions also have many other uses like acting as vasodilators and anaesthetics. A number of uses of leeches are listed in this article.
Leech therapy has its roots even prior to medieval times – they have been around since ages, being used by Indians, Egyptians, Arabs and Greeks for a multitude of purposes like skin diseases, dental problems, nervous system issues, inflammation, and more.
This therapy works principally on the fact that there are, in fact, a dizzying array of chemicals found in a leech’s saliva, including approximately 60 distinct proteins. It is this cocktail of chemicals that is alleged to have far-reaching health benefits following its release into the bloodstream.
Medicinal leeches – hiruda medicinalis 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.
Although the scientific community at large is skeptical about most of the claims made by modern-day leech-peddlers, there are good reasons to further investigate the use of leeches.
For instance, one study found that leeches could improve arterial function among seniors, while another small study (without a control group) found improvements in eczema symptoms.
There is even some evidence that chemicals extracted from leech saliva might help to prevent cancer metastasis and relieve cancer-related pain.
The leech saliva is mostly used for stopping blood clotting although there are a multitude of different uses as listed below.
Applications of leeches
As they collect blood from your veins, leeches release a range of active compounds — which include
- Local anesthetic: This reduces pain. It allows a leech to suck its dinner from our veins without us feeling much discomfort.
- Local vasodilator: This will encourage blood flow in the region of the bite, increasing its food supply.
- Anticoagulant agents (hirudin): These products ensure that blood does not clot as the leech feeds.
- Platelet aggregation inhibitors (calin, for instance): These prevent platelets from sticking together as they do during wound healing.
Ailments treated by leech therapy
Chemicals obtained from the saliva of leeches have been made into drugs for the treatment of
- Varicose veins
- Skin diseases
- Heart disease
- Renal failure
- Herniated disc
Method of performing Leech therapy
The leeches are simply placed on the affected area – or major vein areas like arms. They cut through the skin with hundreds of their razor sharp teeth – which feels like a needle sting. Soon, however, the natural anaesthetic from their saliva kicks in and soothes the pain. Then the leeches begin their work by sucking blood and infusing chemicals into the bloodstream.
Cupping Therapy vs Leech Therapy
Although they might feel similar, cupping therapy and leech therapy are quite different from each other.
Cupping is medical practice where cups are place on parts of the body to create suction effect which raises the skin and draws blood to the surface. It is used throughout Asia, the Middle East, and Europe to treat pain, swelling inflammation, migraine, bronchitis, and the common cold.
The earliest known use of cupping therapy is found in Egypt about 5,000 BC. In China goes back to 3,000 BC. The prophet Mohammad recommended the practice in the Koran 1400 years ago. In Scandinavia and Russia, this was practicing since the 15th century.
The procedure involves using glass or ceramic cups, metal bells, bamboo tubes, animal horn. Recently, however, the use of glass jars, plastic, and silicone are becoming more popular.
Cotton is soaked in alcohol and ignited. This is then put inside the jar to heat it, lowering its internal pressure. The cup is immediately placed on the skin, and as the air inside cools, it creates a vacuum effect which makes it stick to the skin.
Blood immediately rushes to the area, creating painless bruises which actually feels good. It is like massage in reverse. Instead of pressure bearing down against the skin, it feels like the skin is being pushed outward, instead.
Different coloration of bruises indicates type of health problems, level of toxicity in body and blood stagnation.
The common thing between the two therapies is that cupping and leech therapy both help to accentuate blood flow to certain parts of the body.
The difference however is that cupping therapy uses suction and massages the skin while leech therapy uses the trick of infusing leech saliva into the blood.
1)Tim Newman went under leech therapy for his chronic eczema.
On my perilous journey through odd medical practices, I recently tried leech therapy. It wasn’t particularly pleasant, and I won’t forget it in a hurry.
The hirudotherapist was a vibrant and talkative Eastern European woman. She was knowledgeable in the ways of the leech and put my mind at ease as my kitchen-diner was quickly converted into a makeshift hirudotherapy studio.
Seeing the creatures wriggling in a glass jar sent my nerves jangling. There’s something disquieting about the way a leech probes its surroundings. Finally, after signing a legal waiver (which did not settle my nerves in any way), I was ready for my leeching.
Two leeches were placed on each of my forearms, and the bloodletting commenced. I had read that there would be no pain, but that was not exactly true.
As their razor-sharp teeth, of which they have hundreds, made quick work of my skin, it felt like a needle prick. But that was all, really. The creatures’ natural anesthetic kicked in wonderfully.
If anything, the feeling of their undulating bodies against my skin was the worst part. It wasn’t awful, but it was certainly unusual — and not in a good way.
I was hoping that the session would clear up my eczema, but I was told that it would take a number of visits for the leeches’ goodness to trigger my immune system and get to work.
To be fair, though, you can’t expect any treatment to clear up a lifelong problem in one sitting.
However, I did notice changes in my mental disposition as the session was drawing to a close. I felt a little lightheaded — not surprising when blood loss is involved, I guess. Also, I felt relaxed and on the edge of giggles. Happy to be alive.
Read the whole article on – https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321336.php
2) Blind eye now sees due to leech therapy
A 27-year old female who had an inherited blindness disorder found her vision miraculously restoring after the first leech therapy itself, where they attached leeches to her temple and ocular regions.
3) YouTuber Beth Hoyt undergoes leech therapy
Beth Hoyt from the Dirty Little Beauty Secrets channel on YouTube underwent leech therapy and here was her experience of it
She seemed terrified at first but later she calms down and gets used to it.
Risks of Leech Therapy
The following is a list of the more common complications associated with leech therapy:
Reported incidence of infections related to leech therapy range from 2.4 to 20%. Aeromonas hydrophila is the bacteria most associated with these infections. Cases of septicemia, cellulitis and meningitis due to leech transmitted Aeromonas hydrophila have been published.
Aeromonas hydrophila is a normal resident in the Hirudo medicinalis gut. It is believed that contamination of the wound occurs when the leech inadvertently regurgitates gut contents into the wound. Care must be taken to avoid squeezing the leech while handling. Gently guiding the leech and allowing the leech to fully detach before removing it from the area should reduce the chance of wound infection.
Leech therapy may involve significant blood loss. A large skin flap may require 200 or more leeches over a period of about 10 days. A very large leech can extract as much as 15ml of blood and the bite may continue to ooze for days. Up to 50% of patients may require transfusions to replace red blood cells. Hemodilution with IV fluids may be used prior to and during therapy in order to dilute the blood and reduce the loss of RBCs. Daily Hgb and Hct are necessary to avoid the consequences of anemia.
It is believed that George Washington lost 4+ quarts of blood in 24 hours as a result of leech therapy for throat infection. He died shortly thereafter.
Leeches detach themselves and there is a risk of leech movement or migration from the treatment area, possibly into body orifices or deeper into the wound itself. They may enter the ear, nose, mouth or perineum and attach to the tissue.
Leech therapy should be continuously supervised.
However, patients are frequently left unattended long enough for the leech to let go and start wandering in search of a new place to rest or feast. Such an instance can increase the risk of treatment, not to mention the damage it does to the nurse/patient relationship.
If a leech attaches outside the treatment area, it’s important not to pull it loose. Pulling on the leech can increase the chance of regurgitation and infection. Granzow and colleagues at the University of Miami devised a simple method to prevent the leech from wandering.
They affixed one end of a surgical suture to the leech and tied the free end to a firm object or dressing, limiting the range of the leech and reducing the danger that it will migrate into unwanted areas.
Other people use creative “cages” made from paper cups or gauze. With the physician’s permission, sometimes putting gauze plugs into an open orifice next to where the leech is attached can prevent the leech from entering.
It is your responsibility to administer leech therapy safely. Unintended leech bite is a reportable medical error. Protect your patient and yourself by never leaving your patient unattended during leech therapy.
The most common manifestation of allergic reaction is a mild itching at the attachment site. Medicinal leeches tend to cause fewer allergic reactions than leeches of other varieties encountered in the wild. However, allergic reactions from mild to severe anaphylactic reactions can occur:
– red blotches on the skin or an itchy rash over the body
– swelling in parts of the body away from the bitten area, especially the lips and around the eyes
– feeling faint, light-headed or dizzy
breathing difficulties: wheeze, shortness of breath, chest tightness
Mild itching is not uncommon and usually doesn’t last for long, but a severe allergic reaction requires immediate attention and discontinuation of the therapy until the cause of the reaction can be determined.
Not for vegans
At the end of every session, the leeches must always be killed. This is because they can’t be used on another person, nor can they be released into the wild for the risk of propagating diseases.
Once the creatures had had their fill, they are popped off of their own accord or are gently coaxed off of the skin. This is painless. Then the engorged leeches are, one by one, dispatched.
The therapist pours a desiccating fluid onto them and they vomit up their final meal and die. It is brutal. The leech corpses float lifelessly in a crimson sea.
Are you up for it?
So now you’ve read all there is to know about leech therapy, including its risk and disgust factor. Are you willing to try it out now?