Note: The video for this VideOT post wouldn’t embed in WordPress, but it is linked below!
This past week I was on my Fieldwork I assignment, working with an occupational therapist in an acute care setting in a large hospital. While I was there, I heard a therapist talking about a treatment so ancient I never thought I’d see it in a modern hospital!
The treatment is called “hirudotherapy,” and it involves putting LEECHES on a client to facilitate healing!!! I was shocked, but then a nearby PT confirmed that leech therapy occurred commonly at the hospital he had previously worked at. After doing a little research, I learned more about why hirudotherapy can be an effective treatment – when done appropriately and by trained professionals.
If you can stomach it, check out this short Discovery Science video that shows how it’s done: http://animals.howstuffworks.com/28332-discover-magazine-leech-therapy-video.htm
As I mentioned, hirudotherapy is an ancient practice that has been around for thousands of years and used by people and civilizations around the world, from Egypt to Greece to the early Americas (Abdualkader, Ghawi, Alaama, Awang, & Merzouk, 2013).
The basic principle of the therapy lies in the fact that leeches have compounds in their saliva that act as anticoagulates, which means that when they bite and begin bleeding their “patients” blood flow increases in the areas to which they are applied. According to research published in the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences, “Leech therapy has established itself as an alternative remedy for the treatment of vascular disorders, since leech saliva can temporarily improve blood flow and ameliorate connective tissue hyperalgesia [decrease pain in connective tissues].” Hirudotherapy has been proven in many studies to be particularly useful with microvascular surgeries to repair tiny veins and arteries.
This treatment has great implications for occupational therapy, as therapists may be able to recommend hirudotherapy for clients with recent amputations, joint pain, and several other health conditions. For example, here are a few of the areas in which leech therapy has proven useful:
- Increasing blood flow to amputated or severely injured body parts, including the scalp, fingers and to promote healing and return of function
- Increasing blood flow in peripheral blood vessels of diabetic people to prevent ischemic diseases like gangrene (used by traditional Chinese therapists)
- Decreased pain, stiffness and use of analgesics or pain medication in clients with osteoarthritis in the fingers and knees
- Relief of tinnitus in people with this hearing disorder
Despite the many reported benefits of leech therapy, there are also several complications that can occur:
- Excessive bleeding at leech application site
- Infection of sites or surrounding areas
- Skin inflammation or scarring at application sites
In addition to these drawbacks, one of the main problems hindering the popularity of hirudotherapy in many places is the fact that there is no official or globally-accepted form of licensure required for people who use leeches in treatment. Many medical professionals (i.e. physicians) have expressed concern about this. This article from The Guardian gives a great explanation about the cultural and medicinal value of leech therapy for immigrants to the United States, and it also includes the perspectives of doctors who are critical of the treatment being administered by people who they feel are unregulated or inadequately trained.
Regardless of how you feel about leeches in modern medicine, I hope this brief post has been enlightening! I know that I for one will never look at the humble, bloodsucking leech in quite the same way again!