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The Health Benefits of Medicinal Leech Therapy

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The Health Benefits of Medicinal Leech Therapy

Leech therapy has been a very popular treatment for a wide range of diseases since ancient times. Nowadays, medicinal leech therapy (hirudotherapy) came back to the contemporary medicine with fewer applications, which were proven and supported by a huge number of scientific studies and case reports. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved leeches for medicinal purposes.

Leech Therapy and Its Health Benefits

Leech therapy was common around 1500 BC. During this time, leech therapy was so popular that it was used in almost every part of the world. In the early ninetieth century, leech therapy was so popular that leeches became an endangered species. Leech therapy stopped in the 20th century because it did not meet modern medical regulations1.


In the mid-20th century, leech therapy made a comeback and has been used in surgical procedures, vascular diseases, migraines and arthritis1. The leeches that are used today are called medicinal leeches (Hirudo medicinalis). Medicinal leeches have been found to secrete saliva containing about 60 different proteins. These achieve a wide variety of goals useful to the leech as it feeds, helping to keep the blood in liquid form and increasing blood flow in the affected area.

The following is a list of leech therapy uses that are common today.

Cardiovascular Diseases

Cardiovascular disease is a group of chronic disorders affecting the cardiovascular system including heart, veins and arteries.

Medical leech therapy (Hirudotherapy) can be used as an alternative treatment for cardiovascular disorders because the saliva in leeches may improve blood flow and improve hyperalgesia (increased sensitivity to pain) in connective tissue2.

According to a 2011 study published in Alternative Medicine Review, topical leeching improved walking ability, reduced pain and leg swelling, and returned skin to near-normal coloring in patients with phlebitis, a condition in which a deep vein in the leg is affected by a blood clot3. The method used during this study included the application of 4 to 6 leaches directly to the infected area.

Leech saliva is effective in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases because it contains natural blood thinners which help with blood clotting.

Surgical Procedures (reconstructive and microsurgery)

Bleeding from small blood vessels may occur as a result of surgery. This may result in the death of tissue cells. Many doctors argue that using medicinal leech therapy can help save the health of tissues during surgery.

During surgical procedures, leech therapy works when the leeches suck the blood drainage that occurs from going under the knife. The blood thinning properties of the leeches saliva also reduce the risk of venous congestion which is is a common complication of traumatic injuries and reconstructive surgery that can cause edema, slowed blood circulation to the organ and cellular death 1.

There is concern that the leech bite may leave Y shaped wounds, but doctors say that these wounds heal without scars or other complications2.

Leeches may also help improve blood flow after surgery. According to a study published in the British Journal of Plastic Surgery, medicinal leeches were used successfully after surgery.6


In 2008, cancer was responsible for about 13% of all global deaths. These alarming rates are expected to increase during the next two decades to reach up 13.2 million deaths by the year 2030.

Research suggests that the combination of many anticoagulants, protease inhibitors (antiviral drugs) and other components in leech saliva may be just as powerful as some cancer drugs7.


It has been reported that a compound found in leech saliva known as ghilanten may suppress the formation of breast cancer, melanoma, lung cancer and prostate cancer8.

Hirudin is a naturally occurring peptide in the salivary glands of medicinal leeches (Hirudo medicinalis) that has a blood anticoagulant property and may also have cancer fighting properties.

A research published in the European Patent found that a synthetic hirudin injection could effectively inhibit the formation of various tumor cells, such as those in breast cancer, pulmonary carcinoma, bladder carcinoma, soft-tissue sarcoma, colorectal carcinoma, lymphoma and leukemia7.

According to a 2004 study, hirudin greatly inhibited tumor growth and also inhibited seeding into the blood and systematic organs.13

Complications of diabetes

Diabetes has been considered as a global pandemic due to the progressive increasing rates of people suffering from it, expecting to be a worldwide burden by 2030 with 366 million diabetic patients.

There is no research work that indicate leech therapy has been used to treat diabetes. But it may be used to treat its complications, including coronary atherosclerosis, increased blood lipid levels, hyperglycemia, platelet adhesion disorders, high blood pressure, oxidative stress, inflammation, and coagulation factors.

Medicinal leech saliva may prevent blood clotting associated with diabetes due to its ability to bind thrombin, an enzyme in the plasma that causes the clotting of blood. Additionally, leeches have other coagulation factors that may interfere with proteins and peptides, which could be of therapeutic use to those with diabetes1.

According to a research published in International Wound Journal, leech therapy was used to save the foot of a diabetic woman from being amputated12.


Diabetic patients may develop reduced blood flow to their limbs as a result of gangrene. It is important to control gangrene by increasing blood flow and lowering lipidemia (excess lipids in the blood) and blood pressure. Many traditional Chinese therapies include using leeches to increase blood flow throughout the body, which can help alleviate coagulation disorders9.

Related article: 13 Early Warning Signs of Diabetes

Infectious Diseases

The continuously increasing rates of infectious diseases led to a higher usage of the antibiotics, which resulted in a new challenging phenomenon known as resistance to antimicrobial agents.  Leeches can be used to treat infection diseases.

According to a research published in Chemotherapy, medicinal leech extracts contain a protein named destabilase that may have antibacterial properties to fight against bacterial strains. These antibacterial properties work by destroying the cellular components of the strains in bacterial infections10.

A 2003 study found that leeches may contain neurosignaling and antimicrobial peptides that suppress bacterial infections and improve the immune response of cells that are attacked11.

Related article: 13 Powerful Antibiotics That Don’t Require a Prescription


Patients with osteoarthritis in their knees reported an amazing improvement 24 hours after the leeches were applied.

The results were reported in a study which was published in the Journal of Research in Ayurveda.

During the whole study period it has been observed that pain and stiffness started decreasing after the first sitting of leech therapy, and after the last follow-ups there was a significant decrease in symptoms including pain, stiffness, and tenderness.

The researchers concluded that leech therapy can be an effective symptomatic treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee.


Related articles: How To Use Sesame Seeds For Knee Osteoarthritis and Turmeric Extract is Effective as Ibuprofen for Knee Osteoarthritis.

Ear Problems

Leeches were successfully used for the treatment of tinnitus, acute and chronic otitis (inflammation of the ear) and sudden hearing loss1. In such cases, only two leeches are used and placed one behind the ear and the other one over the jaw in front of the ear. The treatment was repeated 2-3 times at intervals of 3-4 days.

Oral Health

Some reports mentioned leech application in tongue swelling which can be associated with life-threatening complications such as airways blockage, as well as using leeches in gum diseases and inflamed abscess in which a few leeches were directly applied on the abscess1.

Related article: How to Treat Gum Infection (Gingivitis) Naturally.

Leech Therapy – Precautions

Caution should be taken if your doctor is considering leech therapy as complications such as infections arise in 2-36 percent of patients1. There are no reports of leech transmitted diseases; however, some strains are resistant to some antibiotics such as penicillin, which can increase your risk of developing an infection.

Some symptoms of leech therapy may include itching, blisters and local tissue damage. Although leech bites usually heal quickly, some cases may result in skin marks. Be sure to talk with your doctor before using any type of leech therapy treatment as this treatment is a procedure that needs to be supervised by a health professional.

Here are other alternative therapies you may be interested:

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