They attack when you least expect them to; latching on to you, sinking their teeth into your skin and feeding on your blood, devouring it until they can drink no more. Oh sorry did you think I was talking about vampires? oh no I was just describing how leeches can get rid of a headache, did I scare you?
For years people have been treating their illnesses and complaints with both traditional and some not so tradition healing methods. Either by hearing it from word-of-mouth or after a quick Google search online and having enough desperation for something, anything to work, some people have turned to some very alternative methods of healing that seem to have arisen straight from the pages of a gruesome horror story.
Leeches are the things of nightmares, equipped with barbed suckers to attach themselves to their hosts and engorge themselves with blood, but could these bloodsuckers actually have a medicinal purpose?
Bloodletting (withdrawal of blood) or otherwise known as hirudotherapy has been used for centuries by many cultures around the world, to ‘cure’ people of their infirmities and conditions. Leeches (much like lawyers) are attached to a person and are free to drink until they can drink no more and eventually fall off.
But why? I hear you ask, why would anyone have this willingly done to them? Well leeches have got a long list of ailments that they have been said to relieve and cure, much like Jesus Christ himself they have been said to make the blind see and the deaf hear, but wait there’s more; Headaches, Arthritis, Hearing loss/problems, gum diseases, eye inflammation, treating high blood pressure, diabetes and even Hepatitis have all said to of been somehow aided by the work of leeches. The research surrounding some of these cures is a little bit vague and does not show with sound science that leeches actually have these wonderful properties, because lets face it; if leeches really could cure all of these problems we would all have a jar of them in our medicine cabinet at home.
Yet leeches have and will continue to be used in helping people in the medical world. Just imagine you’re cooking for your family, cooking up a storm, cooking so furiously that you haven’t even noticed you’ve amputated your finger. Well we all know the classic ‘put your finger in ice’ trick to preserve it, but do you know the ‘attach a blood sucking worm to your finger nub to keep blood flowing and inhibit blood coagulation’? When a severed finger in reattached large arteries are fairly easy to hook back up, but small veins are fragile and take time to heal. So what happens is that you have blood coming in to the reattached limb but blood is not being taken back out to the heart, leaving you with an inflamed limb that can swell up with blood clots. Leeches act as a draining system for the reattached limb, “during leech attachment to the patient, it bites the patient’s skin and it removes approximately 5–10 cc of blood and venous congestion is reduced immediately. At the same time, during its attachment, it injects the salivary gland fluid into the fingertip. Saliva of Hirudo medicinalis contains an enzyme known as hirudin.” (Streit et al. 2014, pp. 23). Hirudin is an anticoagulant that thins and prevents blood from clotting, it allows the wound to bleed at a steady rate even after the leech has been removed. Hirudin is so powerful that it is even being studied further to see how its blood thinning properties can aid those who suffer heart attacks and strokes.
And more good news, leeches appear to have no adverse effects on humans apart from their appearance in compromising places (eyes, noses… and you know where else) and the innate feeling of disgust that someone feels when a worm has attached itself to them and is drinking their blood.
So maybe, just maybe, we should stop depicting these poor creatures as disgusting blood suckers that want to devour us, maybe we should put our differences aside and accept them for who they are and how they can truly benefit us…
uhhhhhhh maybe not, someone pass the salt please.
Live Science 2005,Maggots and Leeches: Old Medicine is New, < http://www.livescience.com/203-maggots-leeches-medicine.html>
Mehdi: Leech Therapist 2016, <http://www.leechestherapy.com/about-leeches/benefits>
Nature 2002, Bloody Suckers: Leech Therapy, <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/bloody-suckers-leech-therapy/11360/>
Streit, L, Dvořák, Z, Novák, O, Stiborová, S, & Veselý, J 2014, ‘The use of medicinal leeches in fingertip replantation without venous anastomosis – case report of a 4-year-old patient’, Acta Chirurgiae Plasticae, 56, 1-2, pp. 23-26, MEDLINE Complete, viewed 14 April 2016.