Any takers for the old leeching treatment?


Although less popular nowadays, this ancient remedy is still being used to treat ailments ranging from arthritis to
cardiovascular disease, writes MICHELLE McDONAGH

HAVING BLOODSUCKING parasites attached to your face or body and leaving them there until they drink their fill might not sound like the most appealing of treatments, but it could make you feel better and look younger!

Hirudotherapy is a method of treatment that uses medicinal leeches, one of the oldest remedies for blood- and congestion-related conditions. Used in medicine for centuries to treat all kinds of ailments from headache to gout, it was thought that leeches drained “impure” blood from the body through blood-letting, thereby curing illness and disease.

While the practice of leeching is much rarer today, hirudotherapy is still popular in the US, Germany, Russia, Austria and Poland, where it is used to treat conditions such as arthritis, rheumatoid disease, cardiovascular disease and is also used as a form of natural botox. Hollywood actor Demi Moore (49) has admitted in the past to being a fan of the treatment.

The European medicinal leech, Hirudo medicinalis, is more often used today as a tool for healing skin grafts or restoring blood circulation after the reattachment of body parts in reconstructive surgery.

The leech used in hirudotherapy today is not the common invertebrate found in Irish rivers and lakes, but is specially bred in European leech farms. In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration in the US approved the bloodsuckers as a medical device.

Ulf Stahlberg, a physiotherapist from Hamburg, Germany, has been treating patients in his Body in Balance clinic in Wexford with hirudotherapy since he moved to Ireland with his wife, Tatjana, in 2007.

He explains that the unique saliva of the leech contains a number of important substances including a powerful natural anticoagulant which removes toxic build-up. It also has a thinning effect on heavy blood, he says, as well as acting as a local anaesthetic and restoring and improving circulation and metabolism.

The therapeutic effect of leeching is not from the blood taken in the meal, but from the continued and steady bleeding from the wound left after the leech has detached.

“I had worked with medicinal leeches in an emergency hospital in Germany where the use of leeches is quite common, particularly to speed up healing of skin transplants after an accident or burn injury. In my clinic in Wexford, I use the leeches mainly for arthritis and rheumatoid diseases.

“They are also very effective in reducing high blood pressure and I have found them very good for treating eczema and piles,” says Stahlberg.

Since he mentioned during a radio interview that hirudotherapy was very popular in Russia for getting rid of crows’ feet, wrinkles and spider veins, Stahlberg has been getting lots of calls from Irish women interested in learning more about this “natural botox”.

“When I set the leeches on, you feel a slight bite like a nettle sting and then they start sucking. It’s interesting to watch because you can see the leech getting bigger and bigger as it sucks the blood. I can’t pull the leech off until it is sated because when it finishes sucking, it delivers an anti-inflammatory substance into the patient’s skin.

“It wants to keep the patient healthy for its next meal, little does he know that is going to be its last meal.”

Since 2005, under European regulations, medicinal leeches must be killed after one use.

Prior to this, they were sent back to the breeders where they lived out the rest of their days in a “pension pond”.

Stahlberg imports his leeches from a special breeding farm in Germany and he must use them within seven to 10 days. He charges €40 per session plus €7.50 per leech and the number of leeches required varies per treatment. The length of the treatment depends on the patient, Stahlberg explains, but it usually lasts for 60-90 minutes.

Daniel Moszczynski provides leech therapy at the Wellness Centre in Westport, Co Mayo. Moszczynski says that unlike many drug therapies, leech therapy is very safe and while treating the body for a particular illness or complaint, the therapy purifies the blood, healing the whole body.

The Polish therapist says that while leech therapy has become more popular in his home country, Irish people are not so keen on the bloodsucking treatment. He has only five or six appointments each week, but says he is in the business to help people and not to make money.

“I am trying to let people know more about leech therapy, most people have never heard of it.

“There are some problems I can cure 100 per cent with this therapy while there are others that it does not work so well on. I find it works best for migraine, problems with veins, eczema and depression.”

“I can’t pull the leech off until it is sated because when it finishes sucking, it delivers an anti-inflammatory substance into the patient’s skin. It wants to keep the patient healthy for its next meal, little does he know that is going to be its last


Hirudo medicinalis or the medicinal leech has three jaws with approximately 100 sharp teeth on each outer rim. The leech feeds by first attaching its sucker onto the skin. The mouth, located in the middle of the sucker, opens to expose the teeth, which cut into the patient’s skin. The saliva of the leech contains substances that anaesthetise the wound area (rendering the bite virtually painless) and dilate blood vessels to increase blood flow to the site of the bite.

Leech saliva also contains an enzyme that promotes a quick dissipation of substances in the leech saliva away from the bite site. One of these substances is hirudin, a naturally occurring polypeptide that inhibits the actions of thrombin, one of the enzymes that facilitates blood clotting. This powerful anticoagulant is primarily responsible for the extensive bleeding that results from a leech bite, though other factors are also involved.

Large adult leeches can consume up to 10 times their body weight in a single meal, with 5-15ml being the average volume taken. These leeches can live for up to a year between feeding.