Leeches have long been used in medical treatment, particularly in plastic and reconstructive surgery.
Leeches can extract clotted blood from affected areas. Removing the blood decreases the strain in the small blood vessels and increases the blood supply. This prevents the tissues from dying.
They release three essential substances when they attach to an area: a natural local anaesthetic (to relieve pain), a local vasodilator (to increase blood flow in the area), hirudin and calin (natural anticoagulants that prevent further coagulation).
Before the therapy, patients are asked to refrain from drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes as caffeine and nicotine cause blood vessels to narrow, which may affect the success of treatment.
The area to be treated will be cleaned before the application of the leech. The number of leeches to be applied will depend on how severely the tissue is congested.
The nurse will guide the leeches to the affected area. The leeches may need to be wrapped with a dressing to ensure that during the process they remain in the correct position. Throughout the treatment the patient must remain still.
The nurse will monitor the patient's skin tone, level of oozing at the contact site and check for blood leakage to determine if the leech therapy is successful.
The leeches will be attached for between 30-60 minutes. Once the leech has finished feeding, it may fall off or be removed. Each leech is used only once and is humanely disposed of. When the leech has finished, the nurse will clean away the dried blood to keep the bleeding going. If the colour of the tissue is returning to normal then the circulation has improved.
It is important not to stop leeching too soon, as it may take three to five days for the new blood vessels to grow and be able to maintain a good blood supply.
The leech produces an anaesthetic, which makes the attaching painless. So, don't to be afraid of the therapy if needed.