I tried leech therapy, and it was unpleasant

On my perilous journey through odd medical practices, I recently tried leech therapy. It wasn't particularly pleasant, and I won't forget it in a hurry.

Leech therapy sounds thoroughly medieval — however, it predates the medieval era by a substantial chunk of time.

Ancient Egyptians, Indians, Arabs, and Greeks all used leeches therapeutically.

Skin diseases, dental problems, nervous system issues, inflammation, and more were all given the leech treatment.

The practice remained widespread in many parts of the world until fairly recently. For instance, the Manchester Royal Infirmary, in the United Kingdom, used 50,000 leeches during the course of 1831.

Leech therapy — which is also referred to as hirudotherapy — is still used today by many medical professionals. The leech enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1970s and has been used with some success following finger reattachment procedures and surgeries on the soft tissues of the face. It is also sometimes used after microsurgeries, such as plastic or reconstructive surgery.

Leeches help to improve blood flow to regions where it has slowed or stopped, thus preventing tissue death.

'Alternative' uses for leech therapy

Nowadays — with alternative and complementary treatments more popular than ever — the alleged benefits of medicinal leeches have been substantially extended.

One clinic claims that hirudotherapy can be used in the treatment of conditions including migraine, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, infertility, hepatitis, cystitis, sinusitis, glaucoma, chronic renal failure, and many more.

Amid the sprawling list of uses, I noticed dermatitis. I've had eczema since I was a child and, in the winter months, it tends to get worse. So, I hoped that hirudotherapy might sort that out for me. I must admit, despite my healthy skepticism, I felt a glimmer of hope.

How do leeches produce their magic?

As they collect their lunch from your veins, leeches release a range of active compounds — which include:

  • Local anesthetic: This, thankfully for me, reduces pain. It allows a leech to suck its dinner from our veins without us feeling much discomfort.
  • Local vasodilator: This will encourage blood flow in the region of the bite, increasing its food supply.
  • Anticoagulant agents (hirudin): These products ensure that blood does not clot as the leech feeds.
  • Platelet aggregation inhibitors (calin, for instance): These prevent platelets from sticking together as they do during wound healing.

There are, in fact, a dizzying array of chemicals found in a leech's saliva, including approximately 60 distinct proteins. It is this cocktail of chemicals that is alleged to have far-reaching health benefits following its release into the bloodstream.

Although the scientific community at large is skeptical about most of the claims made by modern-day leech-peddlers, there are good reasons to further investigate the use of leeches.

For instance, one study found that leeches could improve arterial function among seniors, while another small study (without a control group) found improvements in eczema symptoms.

There is even some evidence that chemicals extracted from leech saliva might help to prevent cancer metastasis and relieve cancer-related pain.

Other researchers are interested in whether hirudin might be useful in the treatment of arthritis. Leech-loving medical professionals are delving into a wide range of diseases with these guys.

The day arrives (finally)

There were lots of false starts in my journey toward this leeching session. Before booking, I needed to provide the results of a recent blood test (to check that I was not anemic or HIV-positive).

Meeting the leeches.

But then — the day before my appointment — the hirudotherapist had to cancel on me; he'd been having problems getting insured by the official hirudotherapy organization since he refused to buy their "overpriced" leeches.

Standard insurance companies are not entirely keen on getting involved in hirudotherapy, so he was left in a frustrating leech-free limbo.

Then, having made contact with yet another hirudotherapist, she also canceled at the last minute; a "famous" soccer player had been injured and needed "urgent" treatment.

Due to this lengthy buildup, my nerves were a little wrought as I awaited the therapist in my home (the fact that it was a home visit made it even more surreal, for some reason).

Also playing on my mind was a colleague's woeful experience with a wild leech. I won't go into the full gory detail, but his story starts with significant blood loss and ends with a massive infection.

The hirudotherapist was a vibrant and talkative Eastern European woman. She was knowledgeable in the ways of the leech and put my mind at ease as my kitchen-diner was quickly converted into a makeshift hirudotherapy studio.

Seeing the creatures wriggling in a glass jar sent my nerves jangling. There's something disquieting about the way a leech probes its surroundings. Finally, after signing a legal waiver (which did not settle my nerves in any way), I was ready for my leeching.

I calmed myself as I was introduced to my new friend: Hirudo medicinalis, the "healing leech."

Two leeches were placed on each of my forearms, and the bloodletting commenced. I had read that there would be no pain, but that was not exactly true.

As their razor-sharp teeth, of which they have hundreds, made quick work of my skin, it felt like a needle prick. But that was all, really. The creatures' natural anesthetic kicked in wonderfully.

Here they are in action:

Over the course of an hour, the leeches gorged themselves on my fluids. They wasted very little; only a small amount of clear lymph occasionally dribbled down my arm. And, contrary to popular belief, leeches aren't placed on the vein. That, I was told, would cause serious injury requiring vascular surgery.

As their shimmering, pulsating bodies took on more and more of my blood, they began to swell impressively, more than doubling in size.

If anything, the feeling of their undulating bodies against my skin was the worst part. It wasn't awful, but it was certainly unusual — and not in a good way.

I found myself, every so often, remembering that there were leeches attached to me and stifling the urgent sensation of panic that rose in my chest.

Did it work?

I was hoping that the session would clear up my eczema, but I was told that it would take a number of visits for the leeches' goodness to trigger my immune system and get to work.

To be fair, though, you can't expect any treatment to clear up a lifelong problem in one sitting.

However, I did notice changes in my mental disposition as the session was drawing to a close. I felt a little lightheaded — not surprising when blood loss is involved, I guess. Also, I felt relaxed and on the edge of giggles. Happy to be alive.

Some of this, no doubt, was associated with the relief that the leeches would soon be taken off my skin, but I wouldn't be surprised if the products of four leeches in my veins for an hour didn't do something to my outlook on life.

Having said that, I'm writing this paragraph still under the influence of said leeches, so perhaps I'm not the best to judge at this point.

As I was feasted upon, my mind wandered back to other leech-based facts that I had gleaned from my research. H. medicinalis, once common in the U.K. and Europe, is now rather rare in the wild.

This is partly due to the leech collectors who made their living by rounding up leeches to sell to medical practitioners in the 19th century.

Often, leech collectors were older people with no other way to make money, so many of them used their own legs as bait, putting themselves very much in harm's way. Although a leech does not take a great deal of blood in a feed, the wounds that they create can bleed for 10 hours or more. Also, infection was a real danger.

So, next time you're sick of your job, spare a thought for the leech collectors who lived and died in the bogs and marshes of the Lake District in northern England.

Hirudotherapy certainly isn't vegan

At the end of every session, the leeches must always be killed. This is because they can't be used on another person, nor can they be released into the wild.

Once the creatures had had their fill, they popped off of their own accord or were gently coaxed off of my skin. This was painless, I am happy to report. Then, before my eyes, the engorged leeches were, one by one, dispatched.

The therapist poured a desiccating fluid onto them and they vomited up their final meal and died. It was brutal. The leech corpses floated lifelessly in a crimson sea.

The gallery below documents the session. Please note that some of the following images contain blood, dying leeches, and my discomfort, so viewer discretion is advised.

Would I do it again?

Actually, no. I am intrigued by the cocktail of chemicals that these slimy blood suckers can produce, but the amount of blood that flowed from me in the hours following the leeching was unpleasant, unnerving, and very messy.

Even 2–3 hours after the leeches had finished their lunch, the flow was substantial and I started to worry. I texted the therapist (who was on her way back to treat more soccer players). She said that some people can keep bleeding for 24 hours following a procedure and that I shouldn't worry.

I changed my blood-saturated dressing five times that day and, as I changed it for the final time — around 10 hours after the procedure had ended — blood was still flowing freely from one of the wounds.

I'm fairly sure that the euphoric lightheadedness I had felt earlier could be attributed to blood loss, after all. Whether leech therapy works is still up for debate, but I, for one, won't be doing it again.