Long before antibiotics for infection and statins for your heart, the leech was the remedy of choice for many ancient physicians. In 1830 alone, the French imported about 40 million of these little blood-sucking worms to help their doctors treat patients for any number of conditions. And 5,000 years ago, Egyptians believed that letting leeches suck a patient's blood would cure everything from fevers to farting.
For most of us, the only relationship we've ever had with leeches was cringing during that scene in Stand By Me when the kids go swimming in a pond only to find their junk being sucked by the bloodthirsty devils. But we might have been wrong to be terrified. According to modern research, leeches are undeserving of the Stephen King treatment.
A study published in the Indian Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences claims that "extensive research on leech saliva unveiled the presence of a variety of bioactive peptides." It goes on to say: "consequently, leeches have made a comeback as a new remedy for many chronic and life-threatening abnormalities, such as cardiovascular problems, cancer, metastasis, and infectious diseases." Leech therapy also has some applications for less life-threatening but still pesky conditions, such as osteoarthritis in knees and even painfully hard and long erections. Yes.
It's the leech's many uses across a broad spectrum of afflictions that is bringing them back into the "mainstream of modern medical practice," according to Maria Bonazinga, President of Leeches USA, whose website provides doctors and other leech enthusiasts information, case studies and year-round emergency leech delivery.
The vampire worm can also help reattach delicate body parts. In 1985, after some failed attempts using conventional means, a Harvard doctor used leeches to save a five-year-old child's severed ear. The leech was the perfect tool for the job as it injects an anesthetic and anticoagulant during the process of bloodletting, which helps prevent the kind of clotting that interferes with healing. The creatures went on to help save many more limbs, fingers, and toes.
You don't have to have a terminal illness or severed body parts to enjoy the benefits of leech and bloodletting therapies. In fact, your local Chinese medicine practitioner may be happy to introduce you to their many rumored benefits, like reducing blood pressure, "detoxifying" the body, and regulating anemia. Traditional Chinese Medicine has been using leeches for hundreds of years and considers it a "typical" treatment. One paper in the Journal of Chinese Integrative Medicine draws attention to the notion that bloodletting could be a fast and superior treatment for common sports injuries like ligament sprains and tendon ruptures. Is it only a matter of time before Tom Brady starts sporting leeches on his knees to treat his injuries?