For many people, the thought of leeches makes their skin crawl. However leeches have wonderful, redeeming qualities in the medical community. Unequaled in many respects, leeches are making a come back in modern medicine – and in veterinary medicine!
Leeches: a new wave in alternative animal medicine?
No way! Leeches have been successfully used in medicine for over 3,000 years. These original practitioners knew relatively little about the origin of their healing effectiveness, but leeches had a positive effect and that was why they were used. They were mostly used for arthritis, gout, varicose veins, for sepsisprophylaxis and, above all, for handling wounds. Today, leeches are still being used, but thow they help is now better understood.
What makes these little helpers stand out?
The medical leech — Hirudo medicinalis — belongs to the family of ring worms (annelid) and has a head and a tail and a suction cup, with which he can hold on perfectly tight. With the head end, the leech sucks the blood from his patient. His jaws are fitted with approximately 80 small chalky teeth, which saw through the skin and create a small wound. The blood that the leech sucks in is then separated into firm components and blood plasma during the sucking process. A grown leech can absorb 20 to 50 ml of blood, at which point he becomes plumply full and shines in wonderful colors. He now is full and is pretty much full for the next two years.
How does the leech function?
The saliva of the leech is a mystery. When attaching, sucking and releasing, the leech injects saliva into the wound. In this saliva, there are a lot of substances that enter the wound and the patient. Of the suspected 30 to 100 saliva secretions, only very few can be named. The known substances act as anticoagulants and anti-inflammatories. They also have a bacterial, antibiotic and pain reducing effect.
What can be treated with leeches?
There are a number of indications for leech therapy. Abscesses, ear hematomas, poorly healing wounds and lymphatic blockages are only a small part of the area of application. This holds true: Who heals is right. But it’s important that whoever is using the leeches has adequate knowledge for the therapeutic treatment.
German researchers conducted a randomized, controlled trial of leeches in 51 people with knee arthritis. They compared one application of four to six leeches, placed around the knee, with a 28 day topical treatment of diclofenac, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug. The patients who had the leech treatment had less pain on the seventh day and showed better improvement in tests of function, stiffness and overall arthritis symptoms during a 91 day follow up than those who received topical treatment. Pain was also decreased by two thirds in the leech group, compared with only one fifth in the diclofenac group.
How do leeches affect arthritis symptoms?
The leech can be effectively used for arthritis therapy. They can minimize the arthritis pain and the dog is then better able to move the affected joint. Due to the additional blood flow to the joint, a better transport of harmful sludge is guaranteed. Moreover, increased movement leads to an even greater reduction in pain.
Before any treatment is started, a comprehensive case history has to be taken by the therapist. Anemia, poor blood coagulation, diabetes mellitus, fever, histamine allergy, leukemia, malignant tumors and stomach ulcers are contraindications for leech treatment. Dogs on blood thinners should also not be treated with leeches. Certain pain medications cause blood thinning and should not be used three days before treatment.
How often is treatment required?
The number of treatments needed are dependent on the dog and the disease. There are cases where only one treatment is necessary to achieve an effective healing. With arthritis, several treatments are often necessary. The interval in between treatments increases with the number of treatments, as the dog becomes more mobile.
How does the dog handle the treatment?
Most dogs don’t even react to the bite of the leech and many dose off during their treatment. Also the secondary bleeding is not a problem, which is different with other wounds, because most dogs won’t try to lick the wound. Secondary bleeding can last up to 36 hours and shouldn’t be stopped by applying a pressure bandage. That would cause bleeding into the wound itself and that should be avoided at all costs.
Who is permitted to apply this treatment?
Leech therapy is subject to very clearly defined legal guidelines. Acquiring medicinal leeches can only be done through pharmacies; they are considered drugs and their use and acquisition have to be well documented.
The power of leech treatment shouldn’t be underestimated — the healing benefits can be enormous — but the risks should also be considered. Treatment should only be done by a certified and trained veterinarian.
From: The German magazine “Hunde Welt” May 2013 edition ISSN 0018-7682