You’ve probably heard the old Bible verse, "there is nothing new under the sun.” While just a moment’s reflection reveals that the phrase is not really accurate, it may seem otherwise when you read about the comeback leeches are making in medical applications.
Several years ago, www.livescience.com, a website that presents news on science, technology and medicine in an accessible format, reported that both maggots and leeches were again being used by doctors to treat wounds that weren't healing properly and during surgical procedures that were likely to cause blood to pool and restrict healthy circulation.
LiveScience noted that in centuries past, leeches took on all kinds of health challenges from headaches to hemorrhoids--the dubious to the logical, you might say. Today they’re most often used to “drain blood from swollen faces, limbs and digits after reconstructive surgery.”
You’re not alone if the thought grosses you out. You might feel slightly better to know that in 2004 the United States Food and Drug Administration approved the marketing of maggots and leeches for medicinal use in the U.S. and regulates them as they do other “medical devices." Also, today’s medical grade leeches are raised in a clean environment, not harvested from muddy rivers and stagnant swamps.
In plastic surgery applications, leeches have several advantages. The first is their efficiency in helping blood to drain from small body parts where veins are easily clogged. The many proteins secreted in leech saliva also help numb pain. All this and a potentially modest price tag too: the article posted on the LiveScience website reported that 500-1,000 medical-grade leeches cost about $70 in 2004.
Plastic surgeons are starting to use leeches more often as a way to promote healing after reconstructive surgery. The creatures, technically segmented worms with the scientific name Hirudo medicinalis, are used primarily after surgery on areas where the blood vessels are small, such as fingers, hands and ears. Leech therapy can also be effective in cases involving skin flaps transplanted from one part of the body to another.
Just a few days ago, an online South Dakota newspaper reported that leeches had been employed to save a patient’s ear. James Anthony Breit, a plastic surgeon in Sioux Falls, had been called on to operate on a kid whose ear had been nearly torn off in a bar fight. As he explained to the Argus Leader, Dr. Breit reattached the ear and “got enough arterial blood flowing in, but not enough going out.”
The result? A painful, swollen ear turning purple and gradually dying. The cure? They’re not known as “blood suckers” for nothing—in came the leeches and, after 24 hours of treatment, the ear was saved.
If you’re interested in learning more about modern leech therapy, also known as “hirudotherapy,” this site provides a good overview: www.bterfoundation.org/leechrx.