Leech therapy: what is it and what is its application in medicine

The medicinal use of leeches dates back to ancient Egypt. There, the Indians, Arabs and Greeks used them to treat different conditions. Bleeding is a therapy that involves the extraction of blood from a person and, among other ways, it can be done by means of leeches.

As tribal as it may seem, treatment with these elastic and flexible predators turns out to be a good alternative to tackle some diseases, sometimes surpassing drugs. Today, the practice is still used by modern medicine.

How does the saliva of the leech work?

In the past, leeches were used to treat conditions. It was believed that "bad blood" or too much of it was the cause of all health problems.

Nevertheless, these animals have been found not to benefit health by drawing blood. On the contrary, it is its venom with more than 60 chemical compounds that offers anesthetic, anticoagulant, vasodilator and anti-inflammatory properties.

Indeed, these attributes are necessary so that leeches can feed through stealthy suction that prevents blood from clotting. But it should be noted that leeches' anticoagulants act selectively on certain clotting factors, which is beneficial to the process.

Of the more than 14 anticoagulants obtained by leeches, these that we will mention below are some of the best known.


Bivalirudin is a peptide, a molecule formed by the union of several amino acids. It works as a direct inhibitor of the thrombin present in the saliva of leeches.

Among other things, prevents blood clots from forming during angioplasty, a surgery that opens clogged arteries so that blood flow to the heart can be improved. It has been used to treat acute coronary syndromes, heparin-induced thrombocytopenia, and disseminated intravascular coagulation.

Anticoagulants with substances similar to those present in the saliva of leeches are used for cardiac procedures.


Lepirudin is also an anticoagulant that can block the action of thrombin. It is used to treat deep vein thrombosis and in surgical procedures, such as the aforementioned coronary angioplasty.


This is another anticoagulant that stands out for its application in patients with kidney failure. It is also believed to prevent deep vein thrombosis in people undergoing hip or knee replacement prosthetics.

Also read: What are collagen peptides?

How does leech therapy work?

Leech therapy uses these types of animals that have three rows of tiny teeth to pierce the skin and inject the anticoagulants found in their saliva.

The procedure lasts between 20 to 45 minutes and, despite the time, the amount of blood drawn is relatively small; only 15 milliliters per leech. It should also be noted that the Hirudíneos used for medicinal purposes usually come from countries such as Hungary and Sweden.

However, this technique is used to treat blood clots, varicose veins and patients in different situations, such as the following:

  • Risk of limb amputation for the side effects of diabetes.
  • Diagnosis of heart diseases.
  • Soft tissue loss as a result of cosmetic surgery.

On the other hand, those who suffer from anemia, clotting problems, or compromised arteries should avoid this therapy. Pregnant women and those under 18 are also not candidates.

What is leech therapy used for?

Proteins and peptides released by leeches in one session can improve circulation and prevent tissue death. Although it is common for these small animals to leave Y-shaped wounds, there is nothing to worry about, as they heal without leaving any type of mark on the skin.

In addition to increasing circulation and eliminating clots, leeches can help in the treatment of circulatory problems and cardiovascular diseases. The chemicals in your saliva are used to make drugs for hypertension, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, skin problems, and arthritis.

1. Treat osteoarthritis

A study published in the journal Ayu suggests that Leech therapy may be considered a suitable approach for osteoarthritis or osteoarthritis. This is because the anesthetic and anti-inflammatory effect on the saliva of these animals reduces the pain and sensitivity of worn joints.

2. Relieve symptoms of heart disease

According to a study published in Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, leech therapy has the potential to reduce inflammation and improve blood flow of people with heart disease, so it has become an alternative approach for these patients.

3. Adjuvant against cancer?

According to a study published by Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, leech therapy has been considered a possible adjuvant to cancer treatments, thanks to platelet inhibitors and special enzymes found in your saliva.

However, although it is not recommended for people with types of neoplasms that involve blood, it could slow the progress of lung cancer. Similarly, there is scientific evidence that injecting leech saliva directly could reduce the colonization of cancer cells.

4. Reduce the risk of amputation due to diabetes

The progression of diabetes is known to trigger diseases that block blood vessels and prevent blood from circulating to the fingers and toes. In extreme cases, flow is compromised and tissue death occurs, causing amputation.

To prevent this from happening, it is best to increase blood circulation in the damaged tissues and also prevent clots from forming. Fortunately, a study published in Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research proposed that leech therapy perform these actions. This is because the hirudin present in the saliva of leeches is able to thin the blood.

Similarly, a study published in Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences has yielded favorable results when it has been used as a treatment for people with this disease. On the other hand, an investigation published in International Wound Journal found that the application of leech therapy was able to prevent amputation of the foot of a 60-year-old woman with diabetes.

It should also be noted that, although there are synthetic forms of leech saliva, experts have shown that the use of 4 leeches in one session reduces the risk amputation.

5. Promote healing from cosmetic surgeries

Leeches have gained popularity for their properties that allow tissue preservation and promote healing after facial reconstructive surgery.

According to studies published in The Laryngoscope Y Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a leech therapy session increases the chances of successful reconstruction results nose, forehead, chest, cheeks, and fingers and toes.

The anticoagulant action of leeches saliva, before and after these interventions, is believed to enhance natural healing. Similarly, it could treat baldness and slow down hair loss.

This therapy could be beneficial to avoid amputations in diabetic patients with vascular complications.

Side Effects and Precautions in Leech Therapy

Although leech therapy is safe in principle, there is scientific evidence on the risk of developing drug-resistant bacterial infections. For this reason, make sure to perform it in regulated environments.

If something unusual happens, blood will leak from the treatment area and the bite will not close. It can also happen that the leech tries to move to an area that does not need to be treated.

Too there are people allergic to the saliva of leeches who can discover it in a session. Therefore, after this experience, they should avoid it at all costs.

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What to remember about leech therapy?

Leech therapies were common in the past and continue to be today. This is because the saliva of these animals has properties anesthetic, anticoagulant and anti-inflammatory.

Among its benefits are the possibilities of improving osteoarthritis, reducing the symptoms of heart disease, assisting in cancer approaches and reducing the risk of amputation due to diabetes.

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