Leech therapy, also known as hirudotherapy, has been used since ancient times to cure a variety of medical ailments. Rather than being totally forgotten as time goes by, leeches have found a footing in the medicine world, even amid today’s cutting-edge technology.

Alternative medicine still remains a choice for patients, may it be to complement their medical treatment or as their main source of treatment.

Leeches are segmented worm-like creatures, with over 600 in terms of species worldwide. However, only 15 are considered as medicinal leeches. Their saliva, which contains over 100 bioactive substances, is the ‘potent’ component that is beneficial to humans. Hence, it may possibly contain more medical potential than is currently known.

Seek only certified practitioners in hirudotherapy

Seeking treatment from certified professionals is a measure that patients should keep in mind from the start, in order to avoid a negative outcome.

One centre which raises medicinal leeches in artificial conditions and exports them for medical use is the International Medical Leech Centre in Moscow. This institution also offers programmes in hirudotherapy to health professionals. More than 2,000 physicians have been certified, since its estalishment in 1937.

In the United States, the American Hirudotherapy Association brings together hirudotherapy practitioners and provides support through continuing education and professional development and networking. Similarly, in the UK, the British Association of Hirudotherapy also provides courses for practitioners and currently offers an online fundamental course that introduces the basis of hirudopractice.

How leeches work

Leeches attach themselves to the target area and draw blood. In the process, they release proteins and peptides that thin blood. This prevents clotting, improves circulation and prevents tissue death, leaving behind small wounds that normally heal with no scar.

Leeches usually remain attached at a “congested” site for between 20 – 45 minutes. Each leech extracts approximately 15 millilitres of blood. Like biological needles, individual leeches can only be used once.

The leech is then disposed in a container with special disinfection solution and subsequently destroyed by cremation.

The many uses of hirudotherapy

Since the early 20th century, leeches have been used to treat cardiovascular diseases like arterial hypertension, angina pectoris, myocardial infarction and post-infarction arteriosclerosis. The Hirudin enzyme in the leeches’ saliva has systemic anticoagulative effects and also stimulates reflex mechanisms.

Other known uses include relieving venous congestion and in surgeries, especially in transplant surgeries. Leeches are also used for patients suffering from deep venous thrombosis and in treatment of inflammation disorders.

Women’s conditions like endometriosis, cysts and irregular menstrual period can also be treated by leeches. In fact, the list goes on and includes alopecia, arthritis, hearing problems, eye diseases, acne and even weight loss. Those at risk of limb amputation due to diabetes can also benefit from leech therapy, as well as those seeking treatment to promote healing after facial reconstructive surgery.

Simple, affordable, natural

A simple and inexpensive option, Hirudotherapy could offer patients an alternative therapy, especially for those who prefer to opt for the ‘natural’ method. Some patients may be aversive towards chemical drugs or simply prefer a non-invasive and non-surgical method.

However, leech therapy is definitely not for the squeamish or faint-hearted – leeches are after all worms that attach to your body part and suck your blood as they do the ‘miracle’.

Nonetheless, while opting for such therapy may ultimately be a patient’s personal choice, he should be advised to conduct ample research before committing to one.

Most importantly, patients with anaemia, blood-clotting conditions or compromised arteries should not opt for leech therapy. Children under 18 years old and pregnant women are also usually advised to avoid it. MIMS

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