I tried leech therapy, and it was unpleasant

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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.
Leech therapy introduced to arm

I suppose it’s not particularly surprising that leech therapy felt unusual.

Leech therapy sounds thoroughly medieval — however, it predates the medieval era by a substantial chunk of time.

Ancient Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, and Greeks all used leeches therapeutically.

Skin diseases, dental problems, nervous system issues, inflammation, and more were all given the leech treatment.

The practice remained widespread in many parts of the world until fairly recently. For instance, the Manchester Royal Infirmary, in the United Kingdom, used 50,000 leeches during the course of 1831.

Leech therapy — which is also referred to as hirudotherapy — is still used today by many medical professionals. The leech enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s and has been used with some success following finger reattachment procedures and surgeries on the soft tissues of the face. It is also sometimes used after microsurgeries, such as plastic or reconstructive surgery.

Leeches help to improve blood flow to regions where it has slowed or stopped, thus preventing tissue death.

‘Alternative’ uses for leech therapy

Nowadays — with alternative and complementary treatments more popular than ever — the alleged benefits of medicinal leeches have been substantially extended.

One clinic claims that hirudotherapy can be used in the treatment of conditions including migraine, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, infertility, hepatitis, cystitis, sinusitis, glaucoma, chronic renal failure, and many more.

Amid the sprawling list of uses, I noticed dermatitis. I’ve had eczema since I was a child and, in the winter months, it tends to get worse. So, I hoped that hirudotherapy might sort that out for me. I must admit, despite my healthy skepticism, I felt a glimmer of hope.

How do leeches produce their magic?

As they collect their lunch from your veins, leeches release a range of active compounds — which include:

  • Local anesthetic: This, thankfully for me, 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.

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.

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.

Other researchers are interested in whether hirudin might be useful in the treatment of arthritis. Leech-loving medical professionals are delving into a wide range of diseases with these guys.

The day arrives (finally)

There were lots of false starts in my journey toward this leeching session. Before booking, I needed to provide the results of a recent blood test (to check that I was not anemic or HIV-positive).

Glass jar of leeches

Meeting the leeches.

But then — the day before my appointment — the hirudotherapist had to cancel on me; he’d been having problems getting insured by the official hirudotherapy organization since he refused to buy their “overpriced” leeches.

Standard insurance companies are not entirely keen on getting involved in hirudotherapy, so he was left in a frustrating leech-free limbo.

Then, having made contact with yet another hirudotherapist, she also canceled at the last minute; a “famous” soccer player had been injured and needed “urgent” treatment.

Due to this lengthy buildup, my nerves were a little wrought as I awaited the therapist in my home (the fact that it was a home visit made it even more surreal, for some reason).

Also playing on my mind was a colleague’s woeful experience with a wild leech. I won’t go into the full gory detail, but his story starts with significant blood loss and ends with a massive infection.

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