Blood-Sucking Leeches: Quack Medicine or Medical Miracle?

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Pity the mediocre leech. For much than a century, it has been a poster kid for the once-decrepit authorities of medicine. Nothing illustrates the comparative backwardness of pre-20th period wellness attraction than the representation of a hapless diligent covered successful bloodsuckers, oregon the cringe-inducing curios that gully spectators to aesculapian museums, similar the vaginal speculums utilized to insert leeches into regions leeches should ne'er go.

Yet erstwhile the leech reigned supreme. Doctors were liable to enactment leeches anyplace – connected a cervix; tied to a drawstring and lowered into the throat, similar small spelunkers, to dainty tonsillitis; inserted heavy into the rectum to dainty intestinal pain, by usage of a specialized metallic rod to flooded what a aesculapian substance described arsenic “violent contractions of the sphincter.” The communal European variety, Hirudo medicinalis, virtually means “medical leech.” As precocious arsenic the 1830s, France unsocial utilized astir 35 million aesculapian leeches a year.

By the 20th century, leeching came to beryllium seen successful astir countries arsenic quackery of the worst sort. But implicit the past fewer decades, the leech has been softly making a comeback. This clip successful the much modern tract of reconstructive microsurgery, wherever surgeons reattach arteries to prevention severed tissue, specified arsenic a portion of the scalp oregon a finger.

“The occupation that surgeons had faced was that they could determination oregon reattach arteries to bring humor into the country of the surgery, but could not reattach the small veins that transportation the humor away,” says Ron Sherman, MD, enforcement manager of the BioTherapeutics, Education and Research Foundation. Without the small veins, excessively overmuch humor pools, and caller humor cannot marque it into the caller tissue.

Surgical Symbiont

The solution, it turns out, had already been provided by evolution. Capable of drafting 10 times its value successful blood, leeches enactment arsenic an flight valve, drafting aged humor distant and allowing caller humor to enter. And they secrete hirudin, an anticoagulant that serves arsenic a localized humor thinner, allowing a leech wound to bleed agelong aft the leech is done feeding and buying important clip for the assemblage to link its ain veins.

“The leech is simply a one-stop shop,” says Adnan Prsic, MD, an adjunct prof of integrative and reconstructive country astatine Yale Medical School. “They bash the occupation of removing blood, but besides secrete compounds that enactment arsenic anticoagulants, platelet inhibitors, and vasodilators, each meant to marque the humor thinner and much conductive.”

Without the usage of leeches, immoderate microsurgical reattachments simply would not beryllium possible, says Vishal Thanik, MD, a integrative surgeon astatine New York University’s Langone Health Medical Center. “Leeches summation the fig of fingers we tin attach,” helium says. “Whether we’re talking astir scalps, penises, ears, they are similar a bridge, allowing the assemblage to hook its ain veins backmost together.”

The usage of leeches is inactive constrictive capable that astir aesculapian professionals are amazed to find them inactive successful use. Surgeon Patrick Reavey, MD, an adjunct prof of integrative country astatine the University of Rochester Medical Center, says his archetypal brushwood with leeches was during his residency, erstwhile his supervisor ordered him to get leeches from the pharmacy. “We were doing a digit reattachment,” helium says. “The archetypal clip I had to instrumentality a leech retired of a bucket of h2o and connect it, well, that was a caller acquisition for me.”

Reavey says that adjacent though the usage of leeches is communal successful his field, the lone happening helium was taught astir them successful aesculapian schoolhouse was their outsized relation successful the past of medicine, erstwhile the leech had reigned supreme.

In the past world, multitudes of civilizations – the Greeks, the Romans, the Chinese – embraced its expected curative power. Instructions for leech treatments tin beryllium recovered successful ancient Sanskrit aesculapian texts and successful hieroglyphics connected the partition paintings of Egyptian pharaohs.

The heyday of the European aesculapian leech came successful the 19th century. Doctors were enraptured with the mentation that the basal of unwellness was mostly atrocious humor that needed to beryllium removed, and they treated the blood-sucking leech arsenic a benignant of jack-of-all-trades cure-all. They prescribed them for conscionable astir anything: headaches to associated pain, hemorrhoids to nymphomania. The British doctors of King George III (he of The Madness of King George) applied leeches to his eyeballs for cataracts and to his temples for insanity. The request for leeches was truthful large that they virtually vanished successful galore European countries.

Return of the Leech

The archetypal usage of leeches successful modern reconstructive microsurgery was successful France successful the aboriginal 1980s. But the signifier took disconnected aft 1985, erstwhile a Harvard surgeon made headlines by utilizing them to reattach a teen’s receptor that had been bitten disconnected by a dog. The request for aesculapian leeches surged. In 2004, the FDA approved them for usage arsenic medical devices.

Outside of existent doctors, determination are inactive clinics that execute leech therapy akin the 19th period sort, claiming to beryllium capable to cure things similar precocious cholesterin and infertility. Demi Moore erstwhile made headlines for saying she was leeched to “detoxify” her blood. The request is precocious capable that a Canadian antheral was arrested trying to smuggle astir 5,000 leeches successful his suitcase portion returning from Russia.

But fewer patients person heard of leeches being utilized successful existent country earlier uncovering retired they were going to beryllium treated with them. “Patients are astatine archetypal successful disbelief,” says Prsic. “Many of them are acrophobic to look astatine it.”

Reavey says astir of his patients respond the aforesaid way. “But erstwhile they recognize the leeches are helping, and that it doesn’t hurt, they benignant of get into the full process,” helium says. “It’s not uncommon for them to commencement naming the leeches.”

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