Leech therapy is a popular treatment for various diseases since ancient times. Now, medicinal leech therapy (hirudotherapy) has its place in the modern medicine with a smaller number of applications, supported and proven by a large number of case reports and studies. In 2004, the FDA authorized leeches for medical purposes.
Health benefits of Leech Therapy
Leech therapy was very popular 1500 BC. In this period, leech therapy was so common that it was used everywhere in the world. In the beginning of the ninetieth century this leeches became endangered species due to the popularity of the treatment. Leech therapy declined in the 20th century since it did not fulfill the medical regulations.
In the middle of the 20th century, the popularity of leech therapy increased and it was utilized in surgeries, for treating vascular diseases, arthritis and migraines. The leeches used for therapy are called medicinal leeches (Hirudo medicinalis). It was discovered that these leeches secrete 60 proteins in their saliva. These proteins maintain the blood in liquid form and increase the blood flow in the affected areas.
These are the most common uses of leech therapy.
Cardiovascular diseases are chronic diseases that affect the veins, arteries and the heart.
Hirudotherapy is used as an alternative intervention for treating cardiovascular diseases, since the saliva improves the blood flow and hyperalgesia (increased pain sensitivity) in the connective tissue.
A research published in the journal Alternative Medicine, found that leeching can reduce the swelling and pain in the legs, improve walking ability and return the normal coloring of the skin in cases of phlebitis, a condition when a deep vein in the leg has blood clotting. For the purpose of the study, researchers directly applied 4-6 leeches on the affected area.
Leech saliva is an efficient treatment of cardiovascular conditions since they have natural blood thinners which can help with blood clotting.
Surgeries can cause bleeding from smaller blood vessels and this may lead to death of tissue. Doctors claim that leech therapy can maintain the health of tissue cells during surgery.
During surgeries, leeches can suck out the blood drainage that happens during the procedure. Their blood thinning ability reduces the risk of congestion of the veins – a common complication in reconstructive and traumatic injuries that can result in slowed circulation of the blood, edema and even cellular and organ death.
Some people are concerned that leech bites can leave Y-shaped wounds, but doctors claim that the wounds heal without any complications or scars.
Leech treatment also improves the blood flow after the surgical procedure. A study published in the British Journal of Plastic Surgery, reported that medicinal leeches were an effective treatment after surgery.
In 2008, cancer was accountable for 13% of all deaths. These astounding rates are going to increase in the following 2 decades and they are expected to reach to about 13.2 million deaths by 2030.
Researchers suggest that the various protease inhibitors, anticoagulants contained in the saliva of the leech can be as powerful as some of the cancer drugs.
It was discovered that a compound contained in the leech saliva called ghilanten can prevent melanoma, breast cancer, prostate cancer and lung cancer.
Hirudin is a naturally peptide in the saliva of the leeches that has an ability to prevent blood coagulation and it can also fight cancer.
A research from the journal European Patent discovered that the injection of synthetic hirudin can block the formation of different tumor cells, including those in colorectal carcinoma, pulmonary carcinoma, breast cancer, bladder carcinoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, leukemia and lymphoma.
In a study conducted in 2014 it was found that hirudin inhibited the growth of the tumor and prevented seeding into the systematic organs and blood.
Diabetes is a global pandemic because of the increased number of people that suffer from it. It is expected to be a global burden by 2030 with about 366 million patients.
Even though there is no research work that claims leech therapy is effective in treating diabetes, it can be utilized to treat the complications, such as increased levels of blood lipid, coronary atherosclerosis, hyperglycemia, high blood pressure, platelet adhesion disorders, oxidative stress, coagulation factors and inflammations.
Leech saliva prevents blood clotting linked to diabetes because of the ability to bind the thrombin – enzyme that causes blood clotting.
A research published in the journal International Wound, reported that leech therapy was successfully used to save the foot of a diabetic woman from amputation.
People who suffer from diabetes may have reduced blood flow in their limbs caused by. It is essential to control the gangrene by lowering lipidemia and increasing the blood flow, as well as maintaining the blood pressure. Chinese therapies use leeches to increase the blood flow in the body, which can help ease disorders associated with coagulation.
The increasing rates of infectious diseases caused an increased usage of antibiotics, resulting in a new phenomenon known as antimicrobial agents resistance. Leeches may also be used as a treatment of infections.
A research published in the journal Chemotherapy, reported that medicinal leeches contain destabilase – a protein that has antibacterial properties and can fight off bacterial strains. Medicinal leeches are able to kill the elements of the strains in infections.
A study conducted in 2003 discovered that leeches contain antimicrobial and neurosignaling peptides that suppress infections and boost the immune response of the attacked cells.
Patients suffering from knee osteoarthritis patients reported an astonishing improvement one day after the application of leeches.
The results came from a study published in the Journal of Research in Ayurveda.
During the study it was noted that stiffness and pain decreased right after the first leech therapy, and during the follow-ups, researches saw significant symptom decrease such as stiffness, tenderness and pain.
It was concluded that leeching is an effective treatment for knee osteoarthritis.
Leaches can be used as an effective treatment of tinnitus, chronic and acute otitis (ear inflammation) and hearing loss. Only two leeches can be used for the treatment of these conditions, and they are applied behind the ear and on the jaw line. It usually takes 2-3 treatments every 3 to 4 days.
Some research suggest application of leeches in cases of swelling of the tongue, which can be result in serious complications including blockage of the airways and in treating inflamed abscess and gum diseases.
Precautions for leech therapy
You should take precautions if the doctors consider that the application of leeches in your condition may cause infections (they occur in 2% to 35% of the patients). There are no reported cases of diseases transmitted by leech therapy; but, some strains can be resistant to antibiotics like penicillin, which may increase the risk of infections.
Some side-effect of leeching are blisters, itching and damage of the local tissue. Even though blisters caused by leech therapy quickly heal, in some cases they can cause skin marks. Consult with your doctor before trying leech treatment since this procedure requires supervision from health professional.