Throughout history, the popularity of leech therapy, also known as hirudotherapy today, has waxed and waned with the times. Going all the way back to prehistoric man, it seems our ancient ancestors had a perfunctory knowledge of the beneficial application of leeches as a home remedy for all sorts of ailments. As recently as medieval times, the medical procedure of bloodletting without leeches was not recognized to be any different than the use of leeches for a time.
Ancient medicine men and those who practiced natural medicine in the woods and swamps of the world were well aware of the difference between a knife slicing open a vein and the judicious application of leeches to heal a disease.
Major civilizations grew aware of natural remedies like the leech and they were in vogue in the Egyptian court under Queen Cleopatra and the Roman apothecaries that treated the wealthy Roman elite and peasant alike.
It wasn’t until relative recent times in the 18th century that the use of leeches for their curative properties grew in popularity to the point where the humble leech was nearly driven extinct. Leeches were shipped by the ton from their native habitat across the continent, usually resulting in the unnecessary deaths of many of the leeches before they even arrived at their destination. Once the discoveries of Louis Pasteur and other medical pioneers took hold, the leech was given a reprieve and faded into the background, able to come back from the brink of extinction and reproduce in sufficient numbers to become viable again.
The medicinal leech has grown again in popularity recently, so much so that there are import and export restrictions on leeches in an effort to prevent overfarming them and driving them to extinction. Advanced techniques in domestically farming the leeches has made harvesting them in the wild less necessary for many nations; even so, the reproductive rate is hardly keeping up with demand.
The story of the humble leech proceeds into modern day focus. Celebrities like Demi Moore advocate their use for keeping a youthful appearance, and increasing exposure by the media for other uses of the versatile invertebrate are ensuring it will be popular for quite a while. Still, there is some concern that this much popularity will bring the leech to the edge of extinction again, illegally smuggled and sold on the black market.
Luckily, there has been a much anticipation of the scientific advances into recombinant Hirudin (r-Hirudin) production. What appeared to be slow progress in the production of this natural enzyme has made leaps and bounds in the last ten years. Hirudin is now being manufactured in large enough quantities to be available to the general public.
In a medical setting, the leeches are popular in use for treatment of vein conditions such as thrombosis and varicose veins. They are also used to treat arthrosis, pain in the joints associated with joint degeneration and inflammation; it is primarily used as a pain management technique for this condition, and not as a cure. The same can be said for its use for rheumatoid arthritis.
Other uses for the leech saliva have been slowly replaced with harvested saliva as opposed to the actual use of the leech itself. This drug therapy is often used for cardiovascular diseases where declotting the blood is an important factor.
The leech is used for physical injuries that have caused a hematoma or pooling of the blood beneath the skin. Such therapies and also used for scar tissue and amputation sites, to reduce pooled blood and return normal blood flow to damaged areas of the body.