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Applications in general medicine

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Medical applications

Introduction

Although a number of leech species exist, Hirudo medicinalis medicinal leeches are the ones most widely used in medicine since they are the most effective therapeutically.

Applications in general medicine

In the past, leeches were used for a variety of applications: their mechanism of action was not understood – all that counted was curing or relieving the problem. Today, scientific studies concerning the active substances in leeches have given us a better understanding of how they work and have given “credit” to their use. In traditional medicine, a lot of the old applications are still used, although our degree of understanding has evolved. Due to the qualities of its anticoagulant, vasodilator, thrombolytic, anti-inflammatory and anaesthetising substances, the indications cited by medical practitioners of leech therapy are as follows :

  1. osteoarthritis : knee, wrist, thumb
  2. tendinitis, tennis-elbow
  3. periarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis
  4. localised muscle pain, cramps
  5. haemorrhoids
  6. varicose veins
  7. thrombophlebitis
  8. haematomas
  9. cerebrovascular accidents at an early stage
  10. tinnitus, external ear infections and chronic ear infections
  11. blood conditions : haemochromatosis, mild heavy metal poisoning, accumulation of toxins
  12. hypertension
  13. non-cancerous, non-alcohol-related and non-cirrhotic hepatomegaly

A number of scientific studies and articles have been published on the subject :

In the case of osteoarthritis, studies have demonstrated that the repeated application of leeches to the knees gradually relieves pain. A scientific study conducted over a period of 3 months in 16 patients suffering from osteoarthritis of the knee, in which 10 patients received 4 leeches for a period of 80 minutes on the painful knee and the other 6 received a conventional treatment, demonstrated that the patients treated with leeches experienced a significant reduction in their pain in less than 24 hours. Four weeks later, the positive effect of the treatment could still be felt. These very encouraging results justify further larger-scale studies.

Osteoarthritis of the knee : Effect of leeches therapy (Hirudo medicinalis) in painful osteoarthritis of the knee : a pilot study, A Michalsen, U Deuse, T Esch, G Dobos, And S Moebus, Ann Rheum Dis, 2001; 60, 986.

For ear problems, according to a Russian study, medicinal leeches and their salivary secretions have been successfully used to treat tinnitus, acute external ear infections and chronic ear infections.

Ear diseases : Use of the medicinal leech in the treatment of ear diseases, Seleznev KG, Shchetinina EA, Trophimenko NP, Nikonov GI, Baskova IP., ORL J Otorhinolaryngol Relat Spec.,. 1992 ; 54(1): 1-4.

A team has demonstrated the efficacy of medicinal leeches to aid in venous decongestion, the resorption of oedema and hyperpigmentation and the healing of varicose ulcers. This study was conducted on 20 patients with varicose veins. The leeches were applied to the area of the varicose ulcer. After treatment, all the ulcers had healed, 95% of the patients demonstrated a reduction in oedema surface area and 75% of patients a reduction in hyperpigmentation. In addition, comparison of the pO2 of the blood taken by the leech and that of the patients’ venous blood shows that the leeches preferentially suck venous blood and thereby help heal the ulcers.

Varicose veins : Leech therapy for complicated varicose veins, Bapat RD, Acharya BS, Juvekar S, Dahanukar SA, Indian J Med Res. 1998, 107, 281-4.