Leeches and medical use

Explore more from this episode More They bite, slither, and slide — and they save fingers and lives. Leeches have been used by physicians since ancient times.

Leeches and medical use

But believe it or not, leeches also serve an important purpose in the medical field. In ancient Greece and 19th-century Europe, leeches were the predominant medical device for bloodletting, a procedure by which practitioners sought to help balance the body's "humors" phlegm, blood and bile by simply allowing the subject to bleed for a bit.

Bloodletting was prescribed to treat a variety of conditions, from a black eye, headache and fever to obesity and melancholia, and inFrench medical professionals imported more than 40 million leeches for this purpose [sources: RubinMestel ]. These days, leeches are used to help heal skin grafts -- the process for treating burns in which blood tissue is transferred from one part of the body to another -- by removing blood pooled under the graft and restoring blood circulation in blocked veins.

They've also been used in reattaching fingers and other body parts [sources: To feed, a leech attaches itself to a human or animal through suckers at each end of its body and then eats its host's blood. Leeches can eat six to eight times their body weight, but rather than sinking to the bottom of the body of water they live in because of such a fully belly, leeches produce a natural anticoagulant or blood thinner, which keeps the blood in them from thickening and clotting and allows them to stay mobile [source: The anticoagulant is also useful to patients in a grafting or reattachment procedure.

A doctor attaches a leech to the skin near the graft or reconnected digit. As the leech feeds, it releases the blood thinner into the patient's soft tissue, preventing clotting and allowing for continuous blood circulation, which is necessary for the procedure to be successful.

When the leech fills with blood, it eventually falls off, but the patient continues to bleed, allowing for continued circulation and new vein growth.

Depending on the nature of the procedure, leeches are typically used constantly replaced as they drop off every 20 minutes or so for up to two days and then often intermittently for a few days following the procedure [sources: PBSRubin ].Hirudo medicinalis, the European medicinal leech, is one of several species of leeches used as "medicinal leeches"..

Other species of Hirudo sometimes also used as medicinal leeches include H. orientalis, H. troctina, and H. caninariojana.com Mexican medical leech is Hirudinaria manillensis, and the North American medical leech is Macrobdella decora.

Since the time of ancient Egypt, leeches have been used in medicine to treat nervous system abnormalities, dental problems, skin diseases, and infections.

Since the time of ancient Egypt, leeches have been used in medicine to treat nervous system abnormalities, dental problems, skin diseases, and infections.

Leeches and medical use

But the use of leeches for medical purposes is still being investigated, according to Nathan Wei, MD at the Arthritis Treatment Center. He advises consulting with your primary physician if you are interested.

Caring for the blood of others. Everyone knows blood is critical to human health. The ancient physician’s art of using leeches has made a modern medical comeback: the worms help doctors do everything from reattach severed fingers to treat potentially fatal circulation disorders.

The current review summarizes the importance of leeches as a complementary source of medical therapy for a large number of ailments, including cardiovascular diseases (CVDs), plastic surgery, cancer and metastasis, diabetes mellitus (DM), and its complication and infectious disorders.