Today I’m going to write about an unusual medical treatment that has nothing to do with acupuncture.

I saw a documentary recently where leeches were used in the healing process. I thought it was very interesting that a method used in the past was being used once again by the medical professionals. I thought it would be an interesting subject to write about for those already familiar and those unfamiliar with this process.


Leeches are ‘worms’ with suckers on each end. Leeches can range in size from a half of inch to ten inches long. They are brown or black in colour. Some feed on decaying plant material. Others are parasites, feeding on blood and tissue of other animals.

Blood-sucking leeches suck your blood using two ways: they use a proboscis to puncture your skin, or they use their three jaws and millions of little teeth. They live just about anywhere where there is water. Leeches find you by detecting skin oils, blood, heat, or even the carbon dioxide you breathe out.

Leeches do not feed often. This is because they take in a big amount of blood when they feed.

Use of Leeches in the Past:

In the 19th century leeches were enjoying a golden age. Millions were raised for medical use as their fame as a cure-all ensued. The mid 1800s saw their constant use for local bloodletting. Druggists administered thousands of leeches to patients with anything from gumboils to facial discolouration. Leeches were applied to the mouth and inside of the throat using a leech-glass, although patients frequently swallowed them. Patients were relieved only with a salty drink of water or perhaps the most popular cure-all of the day, a couple of glasses of wine. Sometimes the leech would not drink and then had to be encouraged by some blood or cream smeared at the puncture site or bathed in a warm glass of beer until ready.
Some barbers used leeches to do surgery as well as cutting hair. When a barber finished surgery, he would take the bloody bandage and wrapped it around a pole to show he did surgery, too. That’s how the white and red swirled barber pole came into use.

Recent Studies:

Today, Scientists are studying leech saliva. They believe the substance that stops or prevents blood clots will one day be able to be used on humans. Researchers have also identified several medical compounds which can be developed from leech saliva. The anticoagulant and clot-digesting properties of these substances make them potentially useful as drugs for the treatment of cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes. Leeches can be “milked” for their secretions without being harmed, and research is continuing into the possibility of synthetically engineering leech saliva.

Recent Uses:

But leeches are still being used to suck blood! Doctors are now turning to leeches to help restore blood circulation to grafted tissue and reattached fingers and toes. For example: microsurgeons in a Boston hospital used leeches to save the ear of a 5 year old boy that had been bitten off by a dog. The leech can remove any congested blood to allow normal circulation to return to the tissues and reconnected veins, thus preventing gangrene from starting.

Doctors around the world use leeches to remove blood pooled under skin grafts for burn patients, or to restore circulation in blocked veins by removing pooled blood.

Hundreds of thousands of leeches are sold in USA to hospitals,clinics and individuals.The European market is much bigger: millions of leeches are sold every year.

Who would have thought it – a blood sucking worm from the past being used today? With progressions in modern medicine it’s great that medicine embraces the past and is open minded and courageous enough to use an old remedy to help patients.

Until next time, take care,


For more information on acupuncture in Dublin, Ireland see


Published above on blog: Saturday 12th May 2012