Blood-letting – the ancient, modern approach – a close up on leech therapy
As part of the ancient ‘mainstream’ medical practices that have existed since antiquity, Hirudo-therapy, as a form of blood-letting to cure patients of ailments and diseases, has, throughout the millennia, been used to treat almost any infliction with illness. Only with the birth of what we today define as conventional medicine, has the medicinal use of leeches as therapeutic agents fallen into oblivion. Until then, leech-therapy was widely spread across Asia, Africa, America, the Middle-East and Europe.
Although never quite lost in the CAM realm, in more recent times, conventional medicine has instigated a revival of this ancient treatment practice, having found evidence of its efficacy for diverse diseases, such as circulatory and cardiovascular disorders, cancer, infectious and inflammatory diseases, arthritic and rheumatic processes, for surgical interventions, as in replantation and breast augmentation surgery and, yes, as anti-aging and cosmetic treatment.
Varicose veins, thrombosis, hypertension and coronary artery disease, arthrosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatism and gout have found a benefit from the treatment with leeches. Ailments such as herpes zoster, otitis media, asthma, hyperlipidemia, ophthalmic diseases, septic shock, cerebral infarction, ovarian cysts, dental diseases, and wound-healing disorders are further indications for the treatment with leeches.
The treatment with Hirudo medicinalis officinalis, the leech, generally sees the leech placed on the skin of the affected area, where it bites and sucks blood, in doing so, releasing a number of bio-active substances secreted from its salivary glands. Within the saliva of the leech are contained blood-thinners, anti-coagulants, vaso-dilators, enzymes, and amino-acids, to name a few. There are about 20 therapeutic ingredients in the saliva of leeches. Hirudin and Eglin are the two scientifically most investigated substances. Eglin is an anti-inflammatory and analgesic, and Hirudin an anti-coagulant, and anti-spasmodic.
The individual leech will suck around 10 to 20 ml of blood and will ‘fall off’ the site of the bite, when it has finished feeding, after 30 to 90 minutes. The bite-wound will continue bleeding for up to 12 to 24 hours, which is part of the benefit of the therapeutic blood-letting. A treatment will usually consist of an application of 2 to 6 leeches.
Traditional Chinese medicine has yet another approach to leech therapy. The ‘Shui Zhi’ is used as an orally administered drug. The leech is dried and ingested for the treatment of blood stasis, uterine growths and traumatic injury. As a homeopathic remedy Hirudo medicinalis, is referred to as Sanguisuga officinalis. It is indicated for hemorrhages, in particular those of the rectum.
Today leeches are cultivated in farms. This is done for hygienic purposes, and due to the fact that the extensive use of leeches throughout the 18th and 19th century has made the medicinal leech become almost extinct. A leech is never applied to more than just one patient.
A look at its historic use almost commends Hirudo-therapy as a universal cure-all. Its importance in history, emphasized by the denotation of the physician as ‘leech’ and his materia medica as ‘leechdom’, shows just how leech therapy dominated the treatment of patients in the old days. The efficacy, increasingly supported by research, returns Hirudo-therapy into the conventional medical sphere, and at that brings with it great potential for a range of diseases.
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About the author:
Uta Mittelstadt, BSc & MSc in homeopathic medicine: I am a homeopath, an artist, a writer and a vegegan, a traveller, and adventurer. I’m a crab born in June. I am passionate about homeopathy. I blog at Clever Homeopathy. My specialty is ‘sports-injuries’, more info at: SPORTSHOM.