Leech therapy is a method of naturopathy and has been known for around 2,000 years. During blood sucking, the leeches secrete various substances in the blood and tissue. This is used to treat various diseases, such as inflammation and pain.
When sucking, the leech releases saliva into the wound - and it contains a whole cocktail of substances that have a healing effect.
Leeches - the term "leech" is derived from the Greek word echis, which means little snake - are among the ringworms and are considered to be more advanced relatives of earthworms.
Of the 14 different leeches, the medicinal leech (Hirudo medicinalis) and the Hungarian leech (Hirudo verbana) are mainly used therapeutically and bred specifically for this purpose. In Germany, leeches are subject to strict quality standards and hygiene regulations as a ready-to-use drug.
-This is how leech therapy works
Leeches suck blood by drilling a small wound into the skin and settling. With their saliva, they release at least 30 different substances into the blood and tissue. These work against pain and inflammation, among other things - they also inhibit blood clotting. One of these anticoagulant substances is hirudin, another calin. The latter results in the wound being cleaned by bleeding for up to 24 hours, which is equivalent to a gentle bloodletting.
In leech therapy, the active ingredients in the saliva of the parasites are used in particular. Therapeutic effects are also attributed to the bite and subsequent bleeding after the leech has fallen off.
The effect of this leech treatment is mainly based on two factors.
The Hirudin works on the one hand
In addition, there is blood withdrawal: the leech sucks about ten to 15 milliliters of blood, again that much is discharged through the subsequent bleeding. The effect of this is said to be
generally relieving and soothing,
blood purifying and detoxifying,
anti-inflammatory as well
-This is how leech therapy works
Before starting leech treatment, the therapist first cleans the patient's skin and then puts on a different number of leeches. The number of leeches to be used depends on the age of the patient, his nutritional status and the clinical picture. The frequency of the intended use and the size of the leeches also play a role.
A maximum of one leech may be used in children per year of life. To ensure that the animals get stuck in the desired place, they are placed on the skin in an inverted glass.
-The leech bite doesn't hurt
The bite of the leech is not directly painful, since the leech in the wild has no interest in being noticed by its victim. Strictly speaking, it is a saw: Three star-shaped saw bars, each with about 80 lime teeth, carefully rasp through the skin to get to the blood. There are openings between the calcareous teeth through which saliva (leech saliva) is released.
A fine stinging or pulling is described when the leech gains access to its food source; this and the subsequent rhythmic suction movements indicate that the bite has taken place and the actual act of suction begins.
Leech therapy requires a quiet, semi-dark room. Not only to relax the patient, but also the leeches, which are sensitive to stress. In stressed animals, the risk of side effects increases.
It usually takes between 20 to 90 minutes, sometimes up to three hours, for the leeches to finish their meal and fall off on their own. They should not be removed by force, as the jaw may remain in the wound and cause inflammation.
The act of sucking can be interrupted by dabbing with vinegar, salt or alcohol. Due to the active ingredient Calin, the wound remains open for eight to 24 hours and bleeds easily. A sterile dressing is therefore necessary.
Use in plastic surgery
One area of application for leech therapy is plastic surgery, mainly after the replanting of ears, fingers, toes or skin flaps, as well as trauma surgery to restore blood circulation after skin and limb injuries.
After limb or skin flap replantation, the arterial supply is restored microsurgically, but the venous outflow is difficult. It takes a week for the smallest blood vessels, the capillaries, to sprout again on their own. During this time, blood congestion may lead to insufficient blood supply to the capillary. Tissue necrosis, i.e. the death of tissue, can be the result. By using the medical leeches, the venous congestion can be suctioned off and the surrounding tissue can be saved.
Leeches as therapy for pain
Leech treatment is one of the so-called diversion therapy methods and is used in alternative medicine in many areas, especially when pain relief and reduced blood clotting are to be achieved. The method is often used when all possibilities have already been exhausted in conventional medicine.
Two studies looked at the effectiveness of leeches treatment for knee osteoarthritis. The leech therapy was superior to conventional treatment with medication, the pain decreased for the majority of the participants, the effect lasted up to six months. However, the IGeL monitor of the medical service of the health insurance companies rated the studies as not meaningful due to methodological weaknesses. A placebo effect cannot be excluded. In addition, no statements about a long-term effect can be made. For patients, this means that the treatment itself has to be paid for.
Alternative practitioners, specialized doctors and clinics use leech treatment for painful joint diseases such as knee joint arthrosis, ankle arthrosis and rheumatic diseases. Other diseases that can be treated with this form of therapy include:
Wound healing disorders
Varicose veins, phlebitis, discomfort after thrombosis (post-thrombotic syndrome)
The therapy method is not suitable for
heavy bleeding tendency
Bleeding from the stomach
simultaneous use of anticoagulant
Vascular diseases (PAD: symptoms, stages and therapy of the window disease, diabetic concomitant and secondary diseases)
-Risks and side effects of leech treatment
In addition to mild swelling, bruising and temporary itching at the bite site, the more common side effects of leech treatment include poor circulation. The reason for this is probably the drug cocktail that the leech releases into the bite wound. As a preventative measure, it is therefore recommended to rest and drink a lot on the day of treatment.
A rare side effect is a wound infection at the bite site, which is usually easy to treat with an antibiotic. In order to keep the risk of infection low and to prevent disease transmission, the leeches may only be used once.
Local allergic reactions or increased or prolonged bleeding have also been observed. The latter is particularly likely if the leeches are placed directly on a vein, for example for the treatment of varicose veins. This requires the creation of a pressure bandage.
-Leech therapy must be paid for
Although a number of medically effective substances have already been found in the saliva of the leeches, the procedure is not a cash benefit and must be paid for by the patient himself. Depending on the doctor or therapist, the costs can vary widely. You can expect between 45 and over 100 euros per session. Added to this are the expenses for leeches, which cost between five and eight euros each.