New Delhi: A few
years ago when Hollywood actress Demi Moore said she let leeches
suck her blood as part of a therapy to look fresh and young it
made headlines. This ancient medical therapy of using leeches for
clinical bloodletting to treat certain health conditions is making
a comeback of sorts in India where the therapy is said to have
Leeches (or Hirudo Medicinalis) are segmented worms from the
Annelida family with suckers at the ends of their body. A leech
can consume between 5 and 15 ml of blood - or four-six times their
body weight in a single feed. The bite of a leech is not painful
as it releases an anaesthetic to prevent the hosts from feeling
Many people are now taking to leech therapy to treat conditions
ranging from blood pressure to gout, from healing wounds to even
hair fall. Only the medicinal leeches are used for treatment,
which are brown, red striped and olive-coloured.
"The therapy has a lot many advantages, without any side effects.
It is a major therapeutic tool and helps in many blood-related
diseases. It also minimises the chances of blood rejection in
blood transfusion cases," ayurveda specialist Ravi Raghuvanshi
Describing the therapy as "safe and advantageous", Raghuvanshi
said the treatment is already "very popular" in the West. "The
therapy is very popular in the West particularly in countries like
the US and Germany. The reason is there is good awareness in the
West as a lot of research has been done on the subject."
"In India, where the therapy originated, there is hardly any
awareness or much research, though the practice dates back 5,000
years. The knowledge has not been transferred well. The popularity
is also scattered. Only 300-400 people every year in Delhi and NCR
use leech therapy," Raghuvanshi said.
In 2008, the union health ministry decided to recognise leech
therapy to treat a range of diseases, including eczema, gangrene,
vascular reconstruction and vascular surgery in chronic wounds.
The technique is in vogue in Jammu and Kashmir, coastal Orissa,
Andhra Pradesh and some parts of Gujarat. Now the therapy is also
practised in some clinics across metropolitan cities like Delhi
Divya Sharma, 47, a resident of east Delhi's Rohini area, says she
found the treatment very effective and life-saving. "I had
suffered serious injury to my legs in an accident some months
back. The wounds turned gangrenous and doctors said they might
have to amputate my legs if the injury does not heal. Then a
friend advised me to try leech therapy. After I started it, my
injuries began to get better day by day. The doctors said no
operation was required."
"The therapy is usually done on patients with rheumatoid
arthritis, skin disorders and even in cases of hair fall. People
suffering from bleeding disorders are not given the therapy.
Otherwise the practice has only advantages," S. Jain, a
Delhi-based ayurveda specialist, told IANS.
"The subject has been taken out of ayurveda, but not many people
have the awareness. It will, however, gain in reckoning in the
near future,"said Jain, whose clinic provides the facility.
"About 150 patients avail of this service every year," he added.
According to medical experts, leeches remove blood from their host
and release pain-killing and blood-thinning substances into the
blood through their saliva. The saliva contains about 100
different bioactive substances, including anti-coagulants, vaso-dilators
The medicinal leeches are brown, red striped and olive-coloured.
In Jammu and Kashmir, this traditional medicinal practice has
consolidated its position, with many people preferring the therapy
to conventional medication. A high number of patients in the state
prefer leeches over allopathic medicine to cure various skin and
Srinagar-based skin specialist Aaliya Nowsheri says the treatment
has been very popular traditionally among the people of the
"A good number of patients have shown interest as they find the
treatment effective, hygienic and clean. Moreover, the practice
has always been present in the state through traditional healers
who are preferred by many in rural areas," Nowsheri told IANS over
"The leeches used have special enzymes which quickly coagulate the
blood sucked out. No further action or medicine is given to the
patient post treatment. The patients get instant relief without
much pain," she added.
The first description of leech therapy, classified as blood
letting, was found in the text of Sushruta samhita (dating 800
B.C.) written by Sushruta, who was also considered the father of
plastic surgery, according to information on the web.
The application of medicinal leeches for cleaning the blood of
poison was used in Egypt around 2,500 years ago. The therapy was
common until the mid-1800s when newer therapies took their place.
In the 1980s, medicinal leech therapy got a big boost by plastic
surgeons who used leeches to relieve venous congestion, especially
in transplant surgery. In 2004, use of blood-sucking leeches was
also approved by the US government as a tool for healing skin
grafts and for restoring circulation.
(Haris Zargar can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)