Leech therapy has been used for thousands of year to treat everything from infections to stomach ailments. In modern times, it is commonly used in various forms of surgery, particularly when increased blood flow and decreased blood clotting is necessary. Leech therapy is rather simple to conduct but is best done by a skilled physician, because complications are possible. For people who are unwilling to use a live leech, there are mechanical or synthetic leeches available.
The most common type of leech used for leech therapy is the Hirundo medicinalis. It has three sets of jaws and approximately 100 teeth. Most people claim that, even with its abundance of teeth, the bite of the leech does not hurt because its saliva numbs the area where the leech attaches. Once attached, the leech may suck anywhere from 1 to 3 teaspoons (5 to 15 ml) of blood from the body. There are other types of leeches that may be used, such as Macrobdella decora, but they usually hold significantly less blood.
There are countless modern medical uses for leech therapy. For example, leeches are commonly used for plastic surgery and reconstructive surgery. They are particularly helpful when reattaching tiny veins, because the leeches prevent blood from clotting. They have been used for ear infections, such as tinnitus, and cardiac infarction, to increase circulation through the heart. Some people even claim that leech therapy is helpful in lessening the pain in people whose knees are affected by osteoarthritis.
It is relatively easy for a skilled person to conduct leech therapy. First, the area of the body where the leech will attach is cleaned. Then, the leech’s head is directed to the area where it must attach. This can be done by holding the leech with gauze and manually directing the leech, or the leech may be placed in the barrel of a syringe and directed to the area of attachment for increased accuracy.
Once it attaches, the leech will feed until it is full. This can take anywhere from several minutes to several hours. When it has reached its limit, the leech will simply fall away from the body. The practitioner must watch the leech to ensure that it does not move to other areas of the body. The area surrounding the leech often will be covered in gauze or plastic to prevent such movements.
If the leech needs to be removed from the body during leech therapy, it can be done by gently wiping its head with a small amount of vinegar, salt or alcohol. If the leech refuses to attach, sugar water can be applied to the area as enticement. Some patients may have a small amount of blood drawn to engage the leech in attachment.
Although complications are relatively uncommon, they do exist. For example, infection is possible. In addition, some people should not partake in leech therapy. These people include those with a weak immune system or a clotting disorder, such as hemophilia.