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Leech therapy: The Alternate Medicine

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By: Mohammad Hanief

Leech therapy (also known as hirudotherapy) is a natural, safe treatment which utilises the healing properties of leeches. The healing properties of leeches have been known for hundreds of years. Leeches were used during medieval times because they were known to heal infections, before antibiotics were discovered.

In the last 20 years leeches have been rediscovered, and are scientifically better understood. Leech therapy has never gone out of use to treat a myriad of disorders and enhance wellbeing in the Middle East and in Eastern Europe, for example Poland, Germany, Russia, Ukraine and in India as well.

The principal mechanism of action in leech therapy appears to be the secretion of a complex mixture of biologically active substances from the salivary glands of the leech at the time of biting, and the injection of these active substances into the animal host.

When feeding, leeches secrete anticoagulant and vasodilatory agents (antiplatelet agents and factor Xa inhibitors) which allow blood to flow freely to the site, once the leech is detached While feeding, leeches secrete a small amount of clear fluid onto the host’s skin.

In addition, leeches secrete analgesic compounds into the site of attachment, along with various anti-inflammatory agents (fibrinolytic enzymes, collagenase, hyaluronidase). These serve to further promote healing.

Leech therapy increases blood circulation. Therefore, when leeches are applied to thinning or bald areas of the scalp, the increase in blood circulation helps to deliver and to concentrate the nutrients that assist in making the hair follicles strong. The therapy can assist in the promotion of hair growth. As with all treatments, the results will vary from individual to individual.

People suffering alopecia caused by fungal infections or dandruff may also benefit from the antimicrobial properties inherent in leech saliva.  This helps to prevent local infection, and also helps combat any established infection.

Boils are infections deep in the skin. A boil begins as a painful red area and gradually becomes tender and firm. Swelling occurs and an ‘eye’ or central peak forms, which contains pus. Pus is a thick, opaque, usually yellowish white fluid matter formed in association with inflammation caused by the invasion of the body by infective microorganisms (e.g. bacteria). Pus is composed of degenerating leukocytes (white blood cells), tissue debris, and living or dead microorganisms.

Typically, a single leech is placed over the eye of the boil, to feed directly on the pus. Additional leeches are attached to the area surrounding the boil, to improve circulation to the affected site. The combined effect of the leeches is to very quickly relieve congestion, and reduce the pressure which is the cause of the swelling, tenderness and pain.

One of the most important substances released from the leech salivary glands is hirudin, a suppressor of blood clotting. Diabetic patients have sugar-laden and therefore viscous (i.e. thick) blood, and this leads to an increased risk of blood clots.

Hirudin helps to prevent blood clots and also improves the blood circulation. Improved circulation results in less pressure on the heart and blood vessels. Better circulation of blood assists with all healing processes, which can be severely impaired in diabetic patients.

Leech therapy can help cure or significantly alleviate the three most common ear and hearing problems – sudden hearing loss, tinnitus and otitis media (middle ear infection).  People suffering from other ailments involving the ear can also benefit from leech therapy.

When attached, leeches secrete an analgesic, which numbs pain in the human host.  They also secrete beneficial enzymes and an anticoagulant which inhibits the formation of blood clots, and also help dissolve existing blood clots. Blood vessels are dilated by other leech-secreted enzymes, improving the circulation generally. Secreted antimicrobial substances kill bacteria and other pathogens that cause ear problems.

Medicinal leeches have three jaws with tiny rows of teeth. They pierce a person’s skin with their teeth and insert anticoagulants through their saliva. The leeches are then allowed to extract blood, for 20 to 45 minutes at a time, from the person undergoing treatment. This equates to a relatively small amount of blood, up to 15 milliliters per leech. Medicinal leeches most often come from Hungary or Sweden.

There are several situations in which leech therapy may be used. People who may benefit include those who risk limb amputation due to the side effects of diabetes, those who have been diagnosed with heart disease, and those who are undergoing cosmetic surgery in which they risk the loss of some of their soft tissue. The therapy has also been recommended to treat blood clots and varicose veins.

People with anemia, blood clotting conditions, or compromised arteries are not candidates for leech therapy. Children under the age of 18 years old and women who are pregnant are also usually advised to avoid it.

Like other parts of the world, leech therapy is popular in Jammu and Kashmir too as the leech therapies are safe but the right species of leeches should be used by the experts.

Leech therapies are used in developed countries, even USA has approved it as a part of treatment. They mostly use it in post-operative surgeries, constructive surgeries. The saliva of leeches contains 20 bioactive chemicals which are beneficial for the body. Leech is also beneficial for chronic ulcers. But these therapies cannot be done randomly.

To promote this centuries-old therapy, two leech breeding and research institutes have been established in Jammu & Kashmir. One is at Jammu Ayurveda Hospital, while the other is at Government Unani Hospital Shalteng.

Doctors and medical experts have been raising concerns about the unscientific use of leech therapy by quacks. The use of leeches in medical treatment requires a thorough understanding of anatomy, physiology, and pathology, as well as proper training and certification. Unfortunately, many people who perform leech therapy do not have this expertise and may put patients at risk.

It makes some people squeamish to imagine leeches being used as a modern medical treatment. But more and more research is showing that there’s a reason why leeches were relied upon for centuries as an essential part of medical care. As we continue to find out more about the special properties in leech saliva, it may very well be that the treatment has even more practical use than we would have ever thought possible.

(The author can be mailed at [email protected])

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