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What is Leech Therapy? Benefits, Applications and Possible Side Effects

The medicinal use of leeches dates back to ancient Egypt. There, the Indians, Arabs and Greeks used them to treat different conditions. Bleeding is a therapy that involves the extraction of blood from a person and, among other ways, can be done by means of leech therapy.

As tribal as it may seem, treatment with these elastic and flexible predators turns out to be a good alternative to tackle some diseases, sometimes surpassing drugs. Today, the practice is still used by modern medicine.

How does the saliva of the leech work?

In the past, leeches were used to treat conditions. It was believed that “bad blood” or too much of it was the cause of all health problems.

However, it has been found that these animals do not benefit health by drawing blood. On the contrary, it is its venom with more than 60 chemical compounds that offers anesthetic, anticoagulant, vasodilator and anti-inflammatory properties.

Indeed, these attributes are necessary so that leeches can feed through stealthy suction that prevents blood from clotting. But it should be noted that the anticoagulants in leeches act selectively on certain clotting factors, which is beneficial for the process.

Of the more than 14 anticoagulants obtained by leeches, these that we will mention below are some of the best known.

Bivalirudin – Bivalirudin is a peptide, a molecule formed by the union of several amino acids. It works as a direct inhibitor of the thrombin present in the saliva of leeches.

Among other things, it prevents blood clots from forming during angioplasty, a surgery that opens clogged arteries so that blood flow to the heart can be improved. It has been used to treat acute coronary syndromes, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, and disseminated intravascular coagulation.

Lepirudin – Lepirudin is also an anticoagulant that can block the action of thrombin. It is used to treat deep vein thrombosis and in surgical procedures, such as the aforementioned coronary angioplasty.

Desidurine – This is another anticoagulant that stands out for its application in patients with kidney failure. It is also believed to prevent deep vein thrombosis in people undergoing hip or knee replacement.

How does this therapy work?

Leech therapy uses these types of animals that have three rows of tiny teeth to pierce the skin and inject the anticoagulants found in their saliva.

The procedure takes 20 to 45 minutes, and despite the time, the amount of blood drawn is relatively small; only 15 milliliters per leech. It should also be noted that the hirudíneos used for medicinal purposes usually come from countries such as Hungary and Sweden.

However, this technique is used to treat blood clots, varicose veins and patients in different situations, such as the following:

  • Risk of limb amputation due to the side effects of diabetes.
  • Diagnosis of heart disease.
  • Loss of soft tissues as a result of cosmetic surgery.

On the other hand, those who suffer from anemia, clotting problems or compromised arteries should avoid this therapy. Pregnant women and those under 18 are also not candidates.

What is leech therapy used for?

The proteins and peptides released by leeches in one session can improve circulation and prevent tissue death. Although it is common for these small animals to leave Y-shaped wounds, there is nothing to worry about, as they heal without leaving any type of mark on the skin.

In addition to increasing circulation and eliminating clots, leeches can help in the treatment of circulatory problems and cardiovascular diseases. The chemicals in your saliva are used in making drugs for hypertension, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, skin problems and arthritis.

1. Treat osteoarthritis

A study published in the journal Ayu suggests that leech therapy may be considered a suitable approach for osteoarthritis. This is because the anesthetic and anti-inflammatory effect in the saliva of these animals reduces the pain and sensitivity of worn joints.

2. Relieve symptoms of heart disease

Leech therapy has the potential to reduce inflammation and improve blood flow in people with heart disease, according to a study published from Integrative Medicine Research, which is why it has become an alternative approach for these patients.

3. Adjuvant against cancer?

According to a study published by PubMed, leech therapy has been considered a possible adjunct to cancer treatments, thanks to platelet inhibitors and special enzymes found in their saliva.

However, although it is not recommended for people with types of neoplasms that involve blood, it could delay the progress of lung cancer. Similarly, there is scientific evidence that injecting leech saliva directly could reduce the colonization of cancer cells.

4. Reduce the risk of amputation due to diabetes

The progression of diabetes is known to trigger diseases that block blood vessels and prevent blood from circulating to the fingers and toes. In extreme cases, flow is compromised and tissue death occurs, causing amputation.

To prevent this from happening, it is best to increase blood circulation in the damaged tissues and also prevent clots from forming. Fortunately, a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research proposed that leech therapy performs these actions. This is because the hirudin present in leeches’ saliva is able to thin the blood.

Similarly, a study published in the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences has shown favorable results when it has been used as a treatment for people with this disease. On the other hand, research published in the International Wound Journal found that the application of leech therapy was able to prevent amputation of the foot of a 60-year-old woman with diabetes.

It should also be noted that, although there are synthetic forms of leech saliva, experts have shown that the use of 4 leeches in a session reduces the risk of amputation.

5. Promote healing from cosmetic surgeries

Leeches have gained popularity for their properties that allow tissue preservation and promote healing after facial reconstructive surgery.

According to studies published in The Laryngoscope and Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a session of leech therapy increases the chances of obtaining favorable results in a reconstruction of the nose, forehead, chest, cheeks, and fingers and toes.

The anticoagulant action of leeches’ saliva, before and after these interventions, is believed to enhance natural healing. Similarly, it could treat baldness and stop hair loss.

Side Effects and Precautions in Leech Therapy

Although leech therapy is safe in principle, there is scientific evidence about the risk of developing drug-resistant bacterial infections. For this reason, make sure to perform it in regulated environments.

If something unusual happens, blood will leak from the treatment area and the sting will not close. It can also happen that the leech tries to move to an area that does not need to be treated.

There are also people allergic to the saliva of leeches who can discover it in one session. Therefore, after this experience, they should avoid it at all costs.

What to remember about leech therapy?

Leech therapies were common in the past and continue to be today. This is because the saliva of these animals has anesthetic, anticoagulant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Among its benefits are the possibilities of improving osteoarthritis, reducing the symptoms of heart disease, assisting in oncological approaches and reducing the risk of amputation due to diabetes.

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