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What Is Leech Therapy? Proven Health Benefits And Side Effects

Leech therapy has been in practice for a very long time. Physicians of ancient Egypt, India, Arabia and Greek used leeches for many therapeutic purposes such as skin diseases, reproductive problems, dental issues, nervous system abnormalities and inflammatory problems. [1]

Leech therapy is a unique treatment method which is also known by the name of hirudotherapy. Leeches are hematophagous animals that have been known to possess many biologically active compounds in their saliva and other secretions. Many doctors recommend it as a number of scientific studies and reports have confirmed the benefits of this treatment method.

In this article, we will discuss some of the evidence-backed health benefits of leech therapy. Take a look. Also remember, that it is a kind of therapy which is recommended to be performed under a health expert.

1. Treats heart diseases

Leech therapy is used in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases. The saliva produced by leeches contains natural blood thinners that can prevent and heal blood clotting. It can temporarily improve blood flow and hyperalgesia or increased sensitivity to pain in connective tissues. [2]

2. Reduces vein inflammation

According to a study, leech therapy reduces swelling and pain in the leg, improves discolouration of the skin and improve the walking ability of patients who had phlebitis, a condition characterised by a blood clot in a deep vein in the leg. The procedure requires four to six leeches which are directly applied to the infected area. [3]

3. Can be useful in reconstructive and microsurgery

Blockage of the veins is a serious complication in reconstructive and microsurgery as those of scalp, retina and amputated ears. Leech therapy is useful in keeping the tissues healthy during and after surgery. If leech therapy is conducted during surgery, the saliva of the leeches helps in thinning the blood, which in turn lowers the chances of venous congestion. Also, the passive oozing after detaching leeches can help improve blood flow after microsurgery. [4]

4. Can help with amputated injuries

Amputation injuries (loss of body parts due to accident) can cause improper blood circulation to the area. A study talks about a case of ripped away scalp injury which was treated with leech therapy. After a few days, improvement in colour and swollen skin was observed. The study also highlights cases of patients who have been through replantation and revascularization operations of facial tissues and ears and were then treated with leech application to improve blood flow and sensitivity of the area. [1]

5. Beneficial in penis replantation

People who have undergone penile replantation often complain about lack of blood flow and normal functioning of the body organ. A study has shown that when penile surgery is accompanied by leech therapy, the results can be outstanding. It can help prevent swelling after the surgery and promote normal functioning such as sensation and erection. [5]

6. Has cytotoxic (kill cancer cells) agents

Studies say that the saliva of leeches contains a compound called ghilanten which can suppress the growth of several types of tumours such as melanoma, lung cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer. It also contains a peptide called hirudin that acts as a great anticoagulant and has anti-cancer characteristics. Some studies also suggest that a combination of components present in leech saliva, protease inhibitors and anticoagulants can be as useful as cancer drugs. [6]

7. Prevents Diabetes

Increased levels of blood glucose in diabetes mellitus can cause severe symptoms and complications. Not many documented reports on the anti-diabetic nature of leech therapy are present, however, the therapy is widely used traditionally to treat various diabetes complications such as gangrene and heart diseases. Hirudin, a peptide in the saliva of leeches improve blood flow in peripheral blood vessels and alleviate coagulation disorders. [7]

8. May treat hearing problems

Leech therapy is used for treating sudden hearing loss, acute and chronic inflammation of the ear and tinnitus. A study talks about the leech therapy in which two leeches were used; one behind the ear and one on front of the ear (near the jaw). The procedure was carried out 2-3 times at intervals of 3-4 days and improvement was observed in the aforementioned conditions. [8]

9. Eases pain

A study has shown that leech therapy is more effective in treating osteoarthritis symptoms such as pain compared to topical diclofenac with no side effects. [9] Hirudin peptide in leech saliva can reduce inflammation and pain in arthritis patients and improve the disability within one week of the therapy, which can last for around two months. [10]

10. Can treat dental problems

A protein named destabilase found in leeches has antibacterial activities against dental-causing infections such as periodontitis and alveolar abscesses. A study says that antimicrobial peptides from the leeches may help suppress the bacterial growth and activate the immune system response to attack the infections.

Side Effects Of Leech Therapy

Leech therapy can have some side effects as leech therapy is all about the direct connection between the host's body and bloodsucking leeches. A study talks about some of the possible side effects of the therapy such as the following: [11]

  • Common skin problems such as wound marks, blisters, itching and tissue damage
  • Leech-related infections
  • Allergy followed by swelling, oedema and erythema
  • Prolonged bleeding followed by anaemia or haemorrhagic shock
  • Unwanted migration of leeches to other places
  • Meningitis (very rare)

To Conclude

Leech therapy is recognised in contemporary medicine due to its proven and supported scientific studies. It is widely used as a therapeutic complementary method which must be done strategically and carefully under a medical expert as it has certain side effects.

Story first published: Monday, January 25, 2021, 18:00 [IST]
Read more about: eech therapy hirudotherapy leech
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