Leech therapy - sounds disgusting, but can work wonders - especially in pain. The use of small bloodsuckers is now medically recognized for chronic pain in the lower back and for osteoarthritis. The leech saliva contains many health-promoting substances, which in combination can alleviate various diseases. Not only naturopaths swear by this age-old naturopathic treatment, but also more and more conventional medicine.
What is leech therapy?
In leech therapy, several medicinal leeches are placed on the skin of a person for healing purposes, where they have pain or other health problems. The leeches now follow their natural instinct: they suck themselves tight and begin their meal by drawing blood from their host, i.e. human beings. This is not much per therapy session - only about 10 milliliters per leech. With bleeding, it is between 35 and 50 milliliters.
Leech treatment is comparable to bloodletting - a traditional healing method that has been used in folk medicine for several thousand years. On the one hand, harmful substances are eliminated with the loss of blood, on the other hand, the saliva of the leech has extensive healing powers that can help with numerous complaints such as back pain or knee joint pain.
What are leeches?
Leeches belong to the ringworms just like the earthworm. The term "leech" is derived from the Greek word "echis", which stands for "little snake". The leech can reach a size of up to 15 centimeters and an age of 30 years. There are over 600 leech species in the world. For medical purposes, however, only the medical leech (Hirudo medicinalis) is suitable, which occurs in Europe as well as in North Africa and Asia Minor. It has a brownish color, black spots on the belly and red stripes on the back.
In the wild, where they live in fresh water such as streams or pools, the leeches feed on animal blood, especially that of cattle. You enter into a symbiosis with the animal. The leech gets the blood, the host the health-promoting substances of its saliva. The leeches can absorb 5 to 10 times their body weight in blood. This provides the annelids with food for two years. The leeches with their three jaws and the very fine teeth between which the saliva is secreted and transferred to the host generate the enormous suction. Due to the great popularity of leech therapy at the beginning of the 19th century, useful bloodsuckers became rare in nature, which is why they are protected in many countries.
Where do the medical leeches come from?
Since the medical leeches can hardly be found in nature, pharmacies, medical practices or naturopaths order them from special breeding facilities. Or you can import the ringworms from other countries such as Bulgaria or Turkey.
Origin of leech therapy and rediscovery of the gentle healing process
Leech treatment or hirudotherapy is a healing method that was already known in Mesopotamia, i.e. around 3000 years ago. The medical scholars of ancient Egypt or India around 500 BC BC have already practiced this form of bloodletting. In the Middle Ages, this natural therapy with few side effects was also used in Europe. Today, the healing effects of leech therapy are valued again, which is why it is used again in alternative medicine as well as in conventional medicine.
Which ingredients are responsible for the healing effects in leech therapy?
The leech therapy can score with various healing effects. The leech's saliva contains over 100 active substances, 20 of which have proven healing properties. The special healing effect of leech therapy comes about due to the combination of these medicinally active ingredients. In addition to hirudin, calin, eglin, bdellin, as well as destabilase and apyrase, various active substances are factor Xa inhibitors and hyaluronidase.
Effect of leech therapy
By sucking the leeches on specially selected skin areas of humans, leech therapy has the following effects:
Promotion of detoxification and purification (and thus support the healing process)
local loosening of the tissue (e.g. muscle tension)
blood-thinning effect and improved blood circulation
Inhibiting blood clotting
relieves congestion in veins, lymphatic vessels and other tissues
Prevent blood clots from forming or dissolve existing clots
For which diseases is leech therapy used?
Leech therapy is not used to cure diseases such as osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Rather, it is about alleviating the associated complaints - especially the severe pain. Therefore, the main area of application for leech treatment is pain therapy and, above all, the treatment of chronic pain.
Leech therapy for osteoarthritis
For osteoarthritis (joint wear), such as knee osteoarthritis, which is accompanied by severe knee pain, leech therapy has been shown to show positive treatment success. According to a study by the University of Duisburg-Essen, leech therapy is effective for knee osteoarthritis, wear of the knee joint. Many patients were able to use the “living medicines” to help them to be free of pain, to have more flexible joints, or at least to reduce joint pain. Based on the positive results of this study, conventional medicine recommends leech therapy for osteoarthritis in various joints (such as the elbow, ankle, hip, sacroiliac joint or thumb saddle joint).
Leech therapy for rheumatoid arthritis, rheumatism and gout
In rheumatism, leech treatment is also a recognized medical therapy to relieve pain. The comprehensive effects of leech therapy are based on the fact that various healing effects come together. Chronic pain, such as rheumatism, rheumatoid arthritis or gout, is always accompanied by tissue congestion. For example, muscles are tense, the lymph fluid or the blood cannot flow properly at the painful area. Stored cell toxins often play a role in the pain process.
If blood is drained from the painful joint or back pain on the back with the leeches, the harmful substances are excreted in the area, which is enough for some diseases to initiate the healing process. If tense muscles or glued fascia (connective tissue) also dissolve due to improved blood circulation and more blood or lymphatic fluid flow at this point than before, these changes have a positive effect on the pain condition.
Inflammation plays a major role in many chronic diseases - including rheumatism, arthritis or gout. These inflammations are contained by the anti-inflammatory agents in the leech saliva, which can reduce joint pain or back pain. According to some experts, leech therapy is more effective, has fewer side effects and is therefore more recommended than pain therapy with painkillers (e.g. non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) - especially if the painkillers have to be taken permanently.
Leech treatment for chronic back pain
The efficacy of leech therapy could also be demonstrated for chronic low back pain, one of the most common spinal disorders. Here, the small bloodsuckers can significantly alleviate the pain in the lumbar spine through their decongestant, anticonvulsant and circulation-promoting effects - and for a long time. In addition, the active substances in leech saliva can improve the mobility of the lumbar spine in those affected and reduce their pain medication consumption.
Last but not least, leech therapy can help many people overcome their depression or depressive mood, which is often associated with chronic pain, and thus improve their quality of life. Treatment with leeches for back pain or complaints in the cervical or thoracic spine can also be successful.
Leech therapy for fibromyalgia
In naturopathy, leech therapy is also used for fibromyalgia. This disease, which is very widespread today, causes chronic muscle pain in several parts of the body such as the back, shoulders and legs. This chronic pain in the muscles can be reduced by decongesting the surrounding tissues such as the lymph or blood vessels, removing harmful cell toxins, improving blood circulation, for example by loosening the muscles.
Leech treatment for fibromyalgia is an alternative and effective naturopathic treatment that is preferable to the continued use of painkillers. Typical complaints of fibromyalgia such as shoulder pain, arm pain and leg pain as well as exhaustion and sleep disorders can be effectively reduced with this living natural remedy.
Leech therapy for varicose veins, thrombosis, phlebitis and spider veins
Another area of application for leech therapy is venous disease. In the case of varicose veins (varicose veins), the contents of the leech saliva improve the flow properties of the blood, so that the congestion in the veins decreases and the varicose veins can go back. This also reduces the associated pain in the legs and swelling. Some studies have confirmed the healing effects of leech treatment on varicose and spider veins (tiny varicose veins). For ulcers (open legs) that develop due to venous insufficiency, the alternative healing method can cause them to heal faster.
Natural medicine takes advantage of the anti-inflammatory properties of leech saliva in the case of phlebitis, i.e. inflammation of the vein wall. These often go hand in hand with varicose veins. The active substances in leech saliva can effectively help to reduce the inflammation in the veins and improve the symptoms.
Blood clots (thrombosis) can also result from phlebitis. Leech therapy can have positive effects both in the prevention of thrombosis and in the treatment of existing thrombosis. Because the gentle naturopathic treatment helps to thin the blood and dissolve blood clots.
Leech therapy for high blood pressure
In studies, people with high blood pressure were able to lower their blood pressure by 20 points using leech therapy. As a result, many needed less medication to regulate high blood pressure. So the natural healing method is a good alternative to chemical hypotensive. If the leech treatment is repeated every 2 to 3 months, the reduced blood pressure can even remain at this level permanently, according to a study.
The researchers explain the effect of leech therapy in that new red blood cells form, which are more flexible and have to be pumped through the blood vessels with less pressure. The scientists see a second explanation for the fact that the amount of iron in the blood drops through the mini-bloodletting, which means that the inner lining of the blood vessels - as if the amount of iron is too high - would no longer be damaged and the vessels would no longer cramp. This could make blood transport work better. Many people with high blood pressure have an excess of iron in their bodies that damages the blood vessels.
Leech therapy for migraines
Researchers do not yet agree why leech therapy can help with migraines. It is believed that mini-inflammation plays a role in the unbearable headache as well as reduced blood flow to certain areas. Because the ingredients of the leech saliva contain inflammation and promote blood circulation, it is possible that the leech treatment for migraine complaints such as visual disturbances, headaches or nausea works for these reasons.
Leech therapy for tinnitus
In our stressful time, many people suffer from tinnitus - the excruciating ringing in the ears, which the body often answers in response to a psychological overload. Because even the smallest vessels, which supply the ear with oxygen and nutrients, contract under tension. This can lead to circulatory disorders in the inner ear, which can be accompanied by ringing, noise, whistling or humming. Blood leech therapy improves blood flow to the ear, the nutrients get to the ear better, and the vessels expand and relax. While leeches cannot cure tinnitus, at least experience medicine shows that the symptoms improve in many people, so that the quality of life of those affected increases again.
Leech therapy for endometriosis and resulting infertility
Leech therapy can also help women with endometriosis. With this disease, women suffer from severe menstrual pain, pelvic pain and often infertility. Tissue that actually belongs in the uterus grows here outside the organ - in the abdomen. The fallopian tubes and ovaries often stick together, which prevents pregnancy from occurring. The anti-inflammatory and pain relieving active ingredients in leech saliva can reduce the pain in affected women. Decongesting the tissue in the female genital organs with improved blood flow can ultimately lead to the symptoms of endometriosis diminishing and the desire to have children still being fulfilled.
Leech therapy for hemorrhoids
Even if many people don't dare: leech therapy can even be used for hemorrhoids. Some hemorrhoid ointments contain the corresponding active substances of the leeches. The healing bloodsuckers can also be used directly. There are already many experience reports from naturopathic practices, in which those affected could achieve good healing successes with hemorrhoids with the leeches. Leech treatment is a side effect-free way to effectively relieve hemorrhoid symptoms such as burning, itching or pain in the anus.
Other uses of leech therapy
In addition, naturopaths, naturopaths, and in some cases also school medicines, use leeches for the following diseases:
chronic inflammation of the sinuses (inflammation of the sinuses) and otitis media
Inflammation of the mammary gland
Congestion in the lymphatic vessels (lymphedema)
Shingles (herpes zoster)
Infectious bites infections
How does leech therapy feel? Is the treatment painful?
Leech therapy is little to not painful. Firmly sucking the leeches is often compared to the feeling of a pinprick. Many people describe what follows as if they had touched a nettle.
Procedure of leech therapy
Preparation of leech therapy
First of all, you should inquire with the doctor whether leech therapy is suitable for you and your symptoms. If you are taking medication, ask the doctor if it can interact with leech therapy. Find a specialized therapist. Since the leeches are sensitive to smell, you should not apply soap, shower gel or cream to the affected area 3 days before the treatment.
On the day of leech therapy, you should rest and drink plenty of water. Choose comfortable clothes and choose a comfortable sitting position before starting that you can take for about 2 hours. The therapist rubs the skin with a damp cloth to optimize blood circulation there. The place where the leech should suck is marked or slightly scratched.
Implementation of leech treatment
Now the therapist places several leeches on the appropriate spots. They immediately suck themselves up. During treatment, the animals release their healing saliva into the wound. After 40 to 90 minutes they have reached their maximum intake volume and fall off on their own. The leeches must not be torn off prematurely, as parts of the jaw can get stuck in the wound or the leech vomits, so that undesirable substances get into the wound. If the treatment has to be interrupted - for whatever reason - the experienced therapist will try with a wooden spatula to carefully detach the jaw of the gel from the skin.
Follow-up treatment and treatment tips
The wound continues to bleed for up to 24 hours after the leeches are released because the animals have inhibited blood clotting. This effect is desirable and therefore does not constitute a side effect. A bandage is placed on the area, which is changed by the therapist every hour after heavy bleeding, later after 12 hours.
Behavior afterwards: While you have the bandage and the wound is not yet closed, you should not take a shower. On the day of leech therapy and the day after, please do not exercise or perform other strenuous movements. If the wound is itchy, do not try to scratch it, otherwise it may catch fire.
The leeches may only be used once, otherwise there is a risk of causing infectious diseases in another person. Following treatment, the leeches are either killed professionally - by freezing or 100% alcohol - or returned to the breeding company.
Duration of leech therapy
Leech therapy with preparation and aftercare can take up to 4 hours. Sucking the leeches themselves takes 40 minutes to 90 minutes. Because of the bleeding, the aftercare must be done carefully, which takes a certain time.
How often should leech therapy be done?
How quickly leech therapy works varies. The desired effect is often achieved after just one application. In these cases, pain relief occurs immediately after leech treatment. In other people, such as those with knee osteoarthritis, the leech treatment is often repeated before the knee pain subsides or at least improves. As a rule, 3 treatments for chronic pain such as back pain or joint pain for rheumatism are considered sufficient. Very rarely, repeated use of leech therapy over a long period of time is required.
How long does the effect of leech therapy last?
How long the effect of leech therapy lasts also varies from person to person. Some people are symptom-free for a few days, so they no longer have pain or restricted movement, while others can spend several weeks, half a year or several years without symptoms such as pain in the joints or back pain.
Who can carry out leech therapy?
You can have leech therapy with medicinal leeches in a naturopathic practice as well as in specialized medical practices or clinics (outpatient or inpatient). At these addresses you can be sure that the leeches come from breeding and are not contaminated with viruses or bacteria.
If you are looking for a therapist for leech therapy nearby and need an address, you can start the therapist search at http://www.blutegel.de/egel/export/sites/default/de/therapeuten_de/therapeutenliste2.html.
Self-treatment is strongly discouraged. There is a risk that the leeches are placed incorrectly, for example on skin areas with a blood-rich vein. This can loosen any blood clots and cause damage to the body.
Cost of leech therapy
The costs of a leech therapy are not covered by the health insurance, unless you have additional insurance for naturopathic procedures. However, if you have the treatment carried out in a hospital, the costs will be borne. The price for a leech treatment at a naturopath is around 300 euros, including consultation, treatment and aftercare. You have to bear these costs yourself.
What side effects or risks can occur with leech therapy?
Leech therapy is generally considered a gentle, natural therapy with few side effects. There are hardly any side effects to be expected. However, like any medical therapy, certain side effects cannot always be excluded with leech therapy. These include reddening of the skin, swelling, infections, bruising, itching, pigmentation disorders or allergic reactions, but these are not a danger. In individual cases, leech therapy can lead to increased bleeding, circulatory problems with a drop in blood pressure, fever and chills. In these cases, you should see a doctor.
When should leech therapy not be performed? - contraindications
Leech therapy is not recommended for everyone. The naturopathic treatment should not be used for:
pronounced weakness of the immune system
advanced cancer or other serious chronic illness
after an organ transplant
severe allergies (e.g. to the saliva of the leech)
Blood coagulation disorders and when taking blood thinners
advanced peripheral vascular disease
advanced liver disease such as cirrhosis
acute stomach or intestinal ulcers
poorly controlled diabetes mellitus
Arterial system disorders
Leech therapy in animals: treat dogs, horses or cats with leeches
In animals such as dogs, cats or horses, leech therapy can also be used and help relieve symptoms such as joint pain or stiffness in the joints. To have leech therapy performed on your animal, you should see a specialized and experienced therapist. In the case of dogs, cats or horses, these are veterinarians or veterinary practitioners. The leeches are then already available for on-site treatment. You should not use it yourself on horses or dogs, because you have to know which areas of the skin the leeches have to be attached to in order to relieve suffering. The cost of leech treatment for horses or dogs is between 200 and 300 euros.