Leech Therapy (Hirudotherapy)
Which are medicinal leeches?
Medicinal Leeches are the species of leeches such as Hirudo Medicinalis used for medicinal purposes. There are several other species of leeches that can be used for the treatment and prevention of a range of disorders. These include Hirudo Troctina, Hirudo Orientalis, and Hirudo Verbana. The Hirudinaria Manillensissis a Mexican leech while Macrobdella decora is a North American leech used for Leech therapy.
Though the general morphology of these leeches is similar to that of most other species belonging to the same category, the difference lies in their compounds and properties that can help to treat health issues. The Medicinal leeches are actually hermaphrodites, which can reproduce through mating, and laying eggs in clusters of about 50 at the places near water, as well as the humid, shaded places.
The fully mature medical leeches are about 20 cm in length and are greenish, or brownish in color. They have a darker tone along their dorsal side. The tone is lighter along their ventral sides. The dorsal side of these leeches has a thin red stripe. They have one sucker at each end known as the anterior sucker and the posterior sucker.
The anterior sucker consists of the teeth and jaw, which are used for feeding purpose while the posterior sucker is used for leverage. The medicinal leeches are tripartite, which means they have three jaws that appear like tiny saws with about 100 sharp teeth present in them used for incising the host.
The primary health benefits of medicinal leeches can be attributed to an anticoagulant called hirudin that is released into the body of the host through these incisions. The incisions leave a mark that looks like an inverted Y. The leeches, after piercing the skin, suck out blood and inject hirudin along with anesthetic agents. These compounds released into the body of the host provide numerous health benefits to the person.
Medical grade leeches and Quality of leeches for medical use
The Medical grade leeches can be obtained from Germany, which is the typical natural habitat producing a large population of the best species of Hirudo, Hirudo Medicinalis. The best quality leeches can also be found in the regions that extend over the whole of Europe and Asia. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan are also the preferred parts of the world where Medical grade leeches can be found.
These medical leeches are grown in muddy, freshwater pools in temperate climates. However, the exploitation of these regions by the leech collectors in the past centuries has left only a few scattered populations of the species, and caused a reduction in their natural habitat. The medicinal quality leeches can also be obtained from the horses in farms as these are the preferred food sources for them.
Now, medicinal leeches are considered a near threatened species by the IUCN and hence, they are legally protected through their natural range. The natural habitat of medical leeches has been designated as the Sites of Special Scientific Interest to protect them from being extinct and ensure the humans can continue to benefit from the multiple health benefits provided by them.
Why are leeches used for medical purposes
Leeches are primarily used for supporting the healing of the skin grafts. It is used in the treatment of burns and skin lesions. It is used during the process of treating skin burns in which the blood tissues are transferred from one part of the body to other by extracting the blood pooled below the grafted area and restoring the blood circulation in the blocked veins. Medicinal leeches are also used as an anticoagulant during the grafting procedure.
Some other benefits of Leech therapy include an improved health of the skin and hair. It is also used for treating varicose veins, and ulcers. People, who are at a risk of limb amputation due to the complications caused due to diabetes, can also benefit from Leech therapy. Patients, who are prone to suffer from the loss of soft tissues due to a heart disease or following a cosmetic surgery, can also benefit from undergoing this therapy.
How does Leech therapy work
Leech therapy works in the following manner:
The medicinal leeches have 3 jaws and small rows of teeth. As these teeth pierce the skin of the patients, the anticoagulants present in their blood are inserted into the body of the patients through the saliva of the leeches.
The medical leeches are allowed to extract the blood from the person for about 20 to 45 minutes during each session. This equates to a very small amount of blood, which could be up to 15 milliliters.
The medicinal compounds released into the body of the patients perform a range of actions that help to treat the specific disorders the patient is suffering from.
Benefits and Medicinal Uses of Leech Treatment
Leech therapy is beneficial for detoxification and in the treatment of several health conditions discussed below.
Leech therapy for Hair Loss
Baldness is a very common hair condition in which men and women lose hundreds of hairs from the scalp and other parts of the body every day. Leech therapy can be beneficial for the treatment of hair loss and baldness.
It works by increasing the blood circulation through the scalp and the hair roots. It nourishes the hair roots and enhances the hair growth. It also rebuilds the immune system.
It also takes care of the common causes of baldness such as the proliferation of fungi in the affected area. The improved immunity imparted by the medical leeches ensures the body can fight these infective organisms effectively and thus, prevents baldness caused due to the same.
The increased blood circulation into the scalp also enhances the supply and concentration of essential nutrients, which strengthen the hair follicles and promote the hair regrowth. Hence, Leech therapy is highly recommended for the men and women suffering from hair loss and baldness.
Leech therapy for face
Hirudo Medicinalis, the scientific name for leech, can also help to improve the health of the skin. Hirudotherapy, the treatment that involves the use of leeches, has become popular for promoting healing and preserving the soft tissue after facial reconstructive surgery.
Leech treatment can improve the chances of positive outcomes in the reconstruction surgeries affecting the nose, breast, forehead, and the digits. Medicinal leeches work by affecting the process of blood clotting during and after these procedures. This helps the body to heal naturally and completely.
Leech therapy also increases the blood circulation through the reconstructed part of the skin and ensures proper supply of nutrients including proteins. The proteins are the building blocks of the body that are needed for the regeneration of the skin cells. The increased flow of proteins to the surgical site supports the healing of the skin tissues and restores the natural integrity of the skin within a short duration of time.
Leech therapy for varicose veins
Medicinal Leech therapy has been used as an effective therapy for the patients suffering from varicose veins. A varicose vein is a common condition that affects the veins of the legs resulting in their dilation. It occurs due to the damage to the valves within these veins due to which there is an increased back-pressure within them. As a result, the blood has to flow from the feet upwards towards the chest against the gravity causing more strain on the blood vessels.
Over a period of time, the veins become lax and tortuous due to the accumulation of blood that tends to pool within them.
Medicinal leeches provide a safe and effective treatment for managing this condition. The medicinal leeches, when applied to the part surrounding the varicose veins and ulcers, help to reduce hyperpigmentation, limb girth, and edema.
This therapy is believed to work through its ability to restore the normal blood flow through the veins of the legs. It prevents pooling of blood into the legs by ensuring smooth blood flow from the legs towards the chest. This helps to prevent edema in the legs. This therapy also enhances the healing of ulcers on the skin overlying the affected site. It also reduces venous congestion caused due to this condition.
This treatment also helps to prevent the complications of varicose veins such as venous eczema, lipodermatosclerosis, venous pigmentation, superficial thrombophlebitis, and venous ulceration.
The administration of Hirudotherapy in combination with other effective treatment modalities like compression stockings and weight management, especially in the case of obese patients, can provide optimum results for the patients suffering from varicose veins.
Leech therapy for wounds
Leech therapy is of great benefit in the management of wounds. It is particularly useful for preventing venous congestion in the patients who have undergone a skin-flap transplant.
This therapy works by creating a punctured wound at the site of application of the medicinal leeches. This results in the oozing of blood for a few hours. Hirudin, a direct thrombin inhibitor, present in the saliva released by the leeches is responsible for the continuous bleeding at the site.
The saliva of the leeches also contains an anesthetizing agent that prevents pain at the site. The Leech therapy also causes localized dilation of the blood vessels resulting in an increased blood flow.
These effects of medicinal leeches help to promote wound healing by allowing an increased amount of nutrients to flow to the part. These nutrients hasten the wound healing and reduce the recovery time of the patients.
This therapy has been used for wound management in the patients who have undergone surgical procedures such as the reattachment of the ears. The transplantation of ears is a difficult procedure with a very low success rate. The clotting of tiny blood vessels around this region during the procedure hampers the healing. The use of leeches can prevent the blood clotting and thus, boost the chances of a successful ear transplant.
Leeches have a unique ability to support the venous-compromised tissues. The saliva of leeches contains a direct thrombin inhibitor called Hirudin and an antibiotic called Hyaluronidase.
Hirudin restores the blood supply to the affected part and allows it to heal faster while Hyaluronidase destroys bacteria thus preventing complications such as re-infection of the wounds. Hyaluronidase also increases the spread of the leech saliva through the local tissue thus enhancing the effect of Hirudin. The saliva also contains a histamine-like vasodilator, which promotes the local bleeding.
These properties of leeches are also beneficial to relieve venous congestions following transplantation surgeries of the fingers, and toes. It can be used during breast reconstruction, augmentation, and reduction procedures to prevent the engorgement of the nipple that could otherwise pose the risk of complications.
Leech therapy for skin diseases
Leech therapy can be beneficial in the management of several skin disorders. It has shown to induce a remarkable improvement in the symptoms of psoriasis, and eczema. It can also be used to treat skin infections.
According to the Leech therapy in Ayurveda, at first bite, these leeches only suck the impure blood from the site of application. The pure blood is left unsucked by them. This helps to remove the toxic impurities that could worsen the symptoms of infection and also work as a blood purification therapy.
Later, however, the leeches start sucking the pure blood. They help to remove the congested blood at the affected site and allow the normal circulation to return to the skin, thus preventing the complications like gangrene.
Medicinal leeches help to relieve the symptoms of psoriasis and eczema by removing the irritants responsible for causing the flare-ups. It can also prevent infections caused due to the repeated scratching in the patients suffering from eczema. The saliva of the leeches contains an antibacterial compound called Hyaluronidase. It eliminates the bacteria and protects the skin against infections.
The other indications of this therapy include cellulitis, sciatica, herpes zoster, diabetic wounds, boils, and abscesses.
Leech therapy as anti-aging
The saliva of leeches contains powerful compounds that can help to reduce wrinkles and other signs of aging. It causes dilation of the blood vessels in the body and restores the blood supply to the aging organs and tissues thus restoring their health.
Medicinal leeches also stimulate the production of collagen, which plays a role in maintaining the elasticity of the skin. This helps to prevent premature wrinkling of the skin.
The biochemical enzymes in medicinal leeches can repair and revitalize the brain and heart thus preventing the age-related degenerative changes in these vital organs.
Leech treatment for psoriasis
Leeches can be used for relieving the symptoms of psoriasis. The presence of anticoagulants and antibacterial compounds in them allows for the use of Leeches for medicinal purposes like treating this skin disease.
Psoriasis is a common skin disorder that occurs due to the tendency of the skin cells to replace themselves quickly. The extent of the disease varies among different patients. In some cases, it causes a few tiny lesions only on some parts of the body. However, some patients develop an extensive form of psoriasis. They develop skin lesions over larger areas of the body especially the knees, chest, elbows, and the scalp.
These lesions appear as red and scaly patches, which reveal fine, silvery scales following scraping or scratching. Leech therapy can help to control these symptoms and provide relief from the recurrent exacerbations of the disease.
The saliva of the medicinal leeches contains active compounds that act as a bactericidal agent and fight off the bacteria in the skin. These components prevent the proliferation of bacteria over the thick layers of the skin cells. This helps to prevent infection in the sites of scratching that have become vulnerable to the entry of bacteria.
This therapy also helps to slow down of regeneration of the skin cells thus providing noticeable relief to the patients.
It helps to reduce the silvery scales on the skin and also controls itching, rashes, and redness of the skin caused due to psoriasis. (1)
Leech therapy offers an effective natural way to detox the body. It acts as a blood purification therapy and allows for the letting out of the toxic blood from the body. During this therapy, the medicinal leeches are applied over a part of the body. The leeches suck the impure blood while releasing certain enzymes in the bloodstream.
This helps in the elimination of harmful toxins and chemicals that have accumulated in the body over several years and purifies it completely. The influx of supportive enzymes in the body occurring provides the body with several beneficial compounds that help to enhance the immunity and healing power of the body.
The therapy also helps to remove the congested blood and restores the normal blood circulation. The detoxification and purification of the blood with this treatment has shown encouraging results in the patients suffering from pain disorders, eczema, psoriasis, acne, abscesses, and alopecia. (2)
Most of the benefits of Leech therapy can be attributed to its ability to prevent coagulation or clotting of blood. The leeches contain an anticoagulant compound called Hirudin, which is a naturally occurring peptide. This compound is present in the salivary glands of the leeches like Hirudo Medicinalis.
Hirudin is a fundamental component of the alimentary habit of hematophagy of the leeches. It prevents blood clotting and keeps it flowing even after an incision is taken through the skin or the bite of the leeches on the host’s skin.
The action of Hirudin is similar to that of antithrombin. It works by inhibiting the procoagulant action of thrombin. Hirudin has the ability to bind to thrombin and inhibit its activation. It also prevents the formation of clots. It dissolves the existing clots by producing a thrombolytic activity.
These effects of medicinal leeches are of immense therapeutic value in the management of blood coagulation disorders, skin hematomas, and varicose veins. (3)
Leeches treatment of bites
Medicinal leeches contain coagulation factor inhibitors, which can help to prevent the symptoms caused due to bites. It contains several anticoagulant molecules that are involved in the inhibition of the platelet aggregation and coagulation cascade including hirudin, a factor Xa inhibitor called antistasin, and an antagonist of platelet membrane glycoprotein IIb-IIIa called decorsin.
These compounds demonstrate a significant anticoagulant effect at the site of bites. This ensures an outflow of the blood thus preventing the spread of poison injected into the body through the bite. (4)
Leech therapy for arthritis
Various pharmacologically active constituents including the thrombin-inhibitor factors, hirudin, found in the leech saliva have been found to be beneficial in the management of arthritis. The saliva of leeches contains histamine-like vasodilators like kallikrein, as well as tryptase inhibitors. It also contains several proteinase inhibitors and anesthetic agents.
Kallikrein helps to support the health of the joints by improving the blood circulation and providing more nutrients to the affected part. The anesthetic agents help to relieve pain and ease the joint movements.
Hirudin can relieve the symptoms of arthritis by preventing blood clotting at the site of application of leeches. It allows the impure blood to flow out from the affected parts and restores the health of the joint tissues.
Hyaluronidase present in the leech saliva can reach the deeper tissues of the joint spaces and enhance the health of the subchondral bone, and cartilage. The anti-inflammatory substances in the saliva of leeches like eglins, and bdellins prevent the progress of arthritis by inhibiting further damage to the joints. (5)
Leech therapy for diabetes
Leech treatment can help in preventing the complications of diabetes. The patients with diabetes have viscous or thick blood, which increases their risk of developing blood clots. The formation and dislodgment of these clots in the circulation can pose a serious threat of morbidity and mortality in case the clot lodges itself in the heart, lungs, or the brain.
Leech therapy can help to suppress the blood clotting. Hirudin produces an anticoagulant effect and thus, prevents the formation of clots within the arteries and veins. It also produces blood diluting effect, which allows the blood to circulate easily. This helps to relieve the pressure on the heart, and the blood vessels thus reducing the risk of diabetes-related diseases such as hypertension, and heart attacks. (6)
Leech therapy plastic surgery
Leech therapy is commonly included in the plastic surgeries to increase the chances of success. The plastic surgeons also rely on these worms to rescue the skin flaps that have been compromised by the venous congestion following surgery.
This therapy can stave off necrosis or the tissue death in the patients who have undergone a reconstructive procedure. Hirudo Medicinalis, when applied at the site of plastic surgery, can enhance the chances of the acceptance of the graft by improving blood circulation and preventing clotting.
It also helps to remove the excess venous blood thus enhancing the free circulation of pure blood through these treated parts. (7)