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What Is Leech Therapy, How Does It Work And Is It Really Effective?

What is Leech Therapy?

Leech Therapy also known by the name of medicinal Leech Therapy or Hirudotherapy is a form of alternative treatment method in which blood sucking leeches are used to treat various medical conditions. Leeches are attached to the skin over the area of concern to utilize the saliva of the leech that is secreted while feeding. This saliva has plenty of medicinal properties which will be discussed in detail below. Leech Therapy is a tried and tested method and is most used form of treatment after plastic, microsurgical, and reconstructive applications.[1]

Leech Therapy has been used for treatment of cardiovascular diseases, DVT, postphlebitic syndrome, diabetes mellitus, tinnitus, and even osteoarthritis. Biologically speaking, there are more than 600 types of leeches present but only Hirudo medicinalis, Hirudo troctina, Hirudo nipponia, Hirudo quinquestriata, Poecilobdella granulosa, Hirudinaria javanica, Hirudinaria manillensis, Haementeria officinalis, and Macrobdella decora are the ones that are mostly used for treatment.[1]

What Is Leech Therapy, How Does It Work?

Studies have shown that the saliva secreted by the leeches during feeding contains bioactive molecules which are effective in treating the conditions mentioned above. As of now more than 20 biomolecules have been identified and research is ongoing on identifying more. These molecules are believed to have analgesic, antiinflammatory, and anticoagulant properties.[1,3] This article highlights the working mechanism of Leech Therapy and whether it is really effective or not.

How Does Leech Therapy Work?

Leeches of the species that hold medicinal values have three jaws with small teeth in them. These teeth bite into the skin surface to suck in blood. During this process they secrete saliva which contains properties like antiinflammatories or anticoagulants which then enter the body. The leeches are allowed to suck in blood for 15-30 minutes in one session. In this time frame not more than 15 mL of blood is lost which is quite a small quantity.[2,3]

Majority of the leeches that are used for medicinal purposes come from Hungary and Sweden. Leech Therapy can be used in various situations. People who have problems at body parts to an extent that an amputation may be required can find this therapy quite beneficial. This is seen mostly in people with chronic uncontrolled diabetes. People with cardiovascular diseases also find Leech Therapy to be quite effective in treating their condition.[2,3]

Leech Therapy has also been used as an alternative to cosmetic procedures. This form of treatment has also been widely used in people with DVT and varicose veins. However, this treatment is not recommended for pregnant females and people under the age of 18 years.[2,3]

Is Leech Therapy Effective?

Experts believe that the secretions from saliva of leeches that enter the body when it sucks blood contains the following

  • Local Anesthetic: It acts as a pain killer in the affected area and the person may not even feel the leech sucking blood due to its effect.[3]
  • Local Vasodilator: It improves flow of blood in the area so that proper nutrition is supplied to the infected region.[3]
  • Anticoagulant: The secretions of leeches also contain anticoagulants ensuring that the blood does not clot in the area where the leeches suck blood through the skin.[3]
  • Platelet Aggregation Inhibitor: Whenever any wound heals, the platelets in the area bind together to promote healing. The platelet aggregation inhibitor present in the secretions of the saliva of leeches prevents this thereby preventing any infection from setting in the area where the leeches suck blood.[3]

These are only some of the benefits identified in Leech Therapy. Additionally, there are more than 60 types of proteins and other nutrients present in the secretions which have a variety of health benefits once secreted in the blood of humans. However, there are also some scientific communities that are skeptical of all of these benefits which necessitate further research and analysis on the efficacy of Leech Therapy.[3]

Leech Therapy is extremely easy and has minimal to no side effects. However, there is some risk of bacterial infection which is at times drug resistant. Thus it is vital to use only leeches that have been kept in a controlled environment and given only by people with proven results.[3]

Additionally, people who have a weak immune system are not considered to be good candidates for Leech Therapy. In case if the therapy goes wrong for some reason then bleeding will start from the area of the bite and the wound will not clot.[3]

In some cases, the leeches tend to move to another area than the one where it is required which results in unnecessary blood loss. Some people may be allergic to leech saliva and in such situations like these will start having an allergic reaction which is an indication to stop the treatment immediately.[3]

In summary, Leech Therapy has been used since a long time and provides significant medicinal benefits. The therapy works by placing leeches on the affected area and allowing it to suck blood. During this process, the leeches secrete saliva which has many medicinal properties and has been effective in the treatment of various illnesses.[1,2,3]

Diabetes, cardiovascular illness, DVT, and varicose veins are some of the medical conditions that have shown significant promise with regard to treatment with Leech Therapy. While some scientists firmly believe about the efficacy of this therapy, there are also some researchers who believe that further research need to be done to substantiate the efficacy of Leech Therapy.[1,2,3]

Pregnant females, children under the age of 18, people allergic to leech saliva, and immune compromised people are not believed to be good candidates for Leech Therapy [1, 2, 3].


Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:January 8, 2022

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