Medicine, Leeching for Health +

(leeches are bleeding their way back into the good graces of modern medical treatment as healers just as they did in ancient societies)

In ancient times, it was thought that an unbalanced condition of the body's essential fluids or humors, were the primary cause of diseases; therefore, a reasonable treatment involved getting rid of excess blood or some other body fluid which seemed to be in oversupply.

Biopharm, U.K. Ltd.
A company in Swansea, Wales, Biopharm ships live leeches to customers in the United States, Europe, and to other countries, but it considers its major role will be to develop biochemicals from leech saliva for use in medicine.

One leech-derived substance, the anti-coagulant hirudin, has been known since 1884, but the use of live leeches in Western Europe in the first half of the 19th century has only recently been re-introduced to solve some post-operative problems in microsurgery.

leech (s), leeches (pl)
1. A bloodsucking aquatic or terrestrial worms typically having a sucker at each end.
2. One species has been used in medical treatments to bleed patients or to eat away putrid flesh from a wound.
3. Any of numerous carnivorous or bloodsucking annelid worms that constitute the class Hirudinea, that typically have a flattened segmented lance-shaped body with well-marked external annulations (ringlike structures, segments, or parts), a sucker at each end, a mouth within the anterior sucker, and a large stomach with pouches of large capacity at the sides.

Such pouches are hermaphroditic (having both male female reproductive organs); usually, with direct development, and which occur chiefly in fresh water, although a few are marine and some tropical forms are terrestrial.

leech or physician
A former name for a medical doctor which came from an Old English word originally meaning "to pull".
leech therapy
1. To treat as a physician; that is, to cure, to heal.
2. To bleed patients for medical treatment by the use of leeches.
3. A nursing intervention from the Nursing Interventions Classification (NIC) defined as application of medicinal leeches to help drain replanted or transplanted tissue engorged with venous blood.

Thousands of patients currently owe the successful reattachment of body parts to miraculous technological advances in plastic and reconstructive surgery; however, at least some of these operations might have failed if leeches had not been reintroduced into the operating room. The appendages reattached include fingers, hands, toes, legs, ears, noses and scalps.

leech-craft, leechcraft
The art of healing with medical knowledge and skill.
A medical formula or remedy.
1. The former and current practice of applying leeches to the human body to draw blood for therapeutic purposes.
2. The use of medicinal leeches to draw blood from patients; an extensive practice in earlier times that is now largely discontinued, although a few specialized uses of this technique still exist.

The leech was indispensable in 19th Century medicine for bloodletting, a practice believed to be a cure for anything from headaches to gout.

Leeching was largely abandoned as medical science advanced, only occasionally being called upon to treat bruising and black eyes; however, the medicinal leech is making a comeback in modern medicine thanks in part to the work of Dr. Roy Sawyer, an American scientist who established the world's first leech farm.

Based at Hendy near Swansea, South Wales, Biopharm is home to over 50,000 leeches which are supplied to hospitals and research laboratories around the world.

medicinal leech, medicinal leeches
Known as Hirudo medicinalis, it was formerly employed for the abstraction of small quantities of blood in inflammatory and other conditions.

Leeches were used as a method of bloodletting, a practice common up to the middle of the 19th century.

In modern times, leeches have been used to evacuate periorbital hemorrhage (black eye) and to remove congested venous blood from the suture lines of re-implanted fingers.

Sometimes, a patient's veins are too weak to carry blood and it builds up, causing venous congestion and since leeches are a source of hirudin, an anticoagulating principle secreted by their buccal glands and leech saliva contains several active substances including inhibitors of platelet aggregation, they are used to decrease such venous congestion.

The leech's saliva contains substances that anesthetize the wound area, dilate the blood vessels to increase blood flow, and prevent the blood from clotting and so attaching leeches to the body draws the blood away gradually and painlessly.

Leeches are particularly useful in plastic surgery; such as, breast reconstruction and where a part of the body has become severed and had to be sewn back on.

Leeches and Leeching Treatments

  • Bleeding was sometimes induced with a knife or needle and, sometimes, a suction cup.
  • Another handy and relatively painless procedure was the leech, a a voracious little blood-sucking worm.
  • At least over the centuries since Egyptian times, leeches have been employed to treat a long list of maladies.
  • One of the oldest surviving medical prescriptions dates to the second century B.C., when the Greek physician Nicander suggested the use of leeches for venomous bites.
  • Other practitioners prescribed them for epilepsy, headache, pleurisy, insanity, infected wounds, and gout; along with disorders of the eyes and aliments of the spleen and other internal organs.
  • The medicinal leech, a species that inhabits "Old World" streams and ponds, was the favorite of physicians, who often kept a supply on hand in little aquaria.
  • The inch-long creatures have round mouths containing three cutting plates, each with as many as 100 teeth.
  • A leech, attached to an area of the body that is engorged with blood, will drain it and give the area time to return to normal circulation.

  • After piercing the skins of their hosts, the leeches would feed steadily for fifteen minutes or so.
  • When their digestive tracts have been filled to capacity, or as much as two ounces of blood, the leeches let go or drop off.
  • It is believed that most patients, from the earliest days to the more recent past, the leeches probably did neither harm nor good.
  • Modern surgeons have found that in some respects their ancient counterparts may have had the right idea.
  • Leeches have had definite benefits in delicate procedures; such as, the reattachment of severed ears or fingers.
  • The blood supply to the reattached parts are usually assured by surgical repairs of arteries; however, the smaller veins which carry blood to the heart must usually be left to heal themselves.
  • Until the smaller veins can heal, the blood stagnates in the reattached part.
  • When the leeches are allowed to remove the blood, pain and swelling are lessened and healing is enhanced.
  • The leeches also inject an anticoagulant that causes a continued ooze of blood for several hours.
  • Leeching is often considered to be less than a perfect treatment.
  • Many patients are uncomfortable and nervous at the thought of having such creatures on their bodies and a leech could have a potentially infectious bacterium.
  • Despite such negative aspects, this ancient treatment has so proven its benefits that a leech farm in Wales has done a successful business supplying tens of thousands of the creatures every year to surgeons all over the world.
—Compiled primarily from information located in
Feats and Wisdom of the Ancients by the Editors of Time-Life Books;
Time-Life Books, Inc.; Alexandria, Virginia; 1990; pages 42 & 43.

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