Leeches and bloodletting in medicine probably bring to mind images of medieval doctors in dimly-lit huts and fears of black bile. In fact, bloodletting has a 3,000-year history dating back to ancient Egypt.
So, aside from a history lesson, why are we talking about it now?
Well as it turns out, this seemingly barbaric practice is actually not entirely a thing of the past. We pulled together facts from a study from the journal BMC Medicine as well as testimonials from medical professionals to explain why bloodletting is still happening now and if you should expect to encounter any of those black slimy suckers on your next visit to the doctor.
Bloodletting in modern medicine
Bloodletting has been used for centuries by cultures around the world to provide people with a physiological balance. Practitioners using it today are far removed from medieval European doctors. In China, for example, they use the ancient practice of ki, or balancing of the thickness of the blood. Remote communities in India also consider bloodletting an accepted treatment for everything from arthritis to cervical cancer.
Bloodletting in acupuncture
It just takes a short Google search for “bloodletting” and “acupuncture” to see that methodic removal of a patient’s blood is a common therapy in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine.
A conventional indicator of whether a person is healthy is the measurement of their “blood stasis,” or thickness of their blood, according to acupuncturist Leta Herman. Many people are deficient in blood, but for those with too much of it, treatments have been devised for actually reducing the amount of the red stuff running through your veins. Removal is either achieved by bloodletting on specific points of the body with needles or through the practice of “cupping,” which utilizes suction to literally suck out a patient’s blood through the pores in his or her skin.
Bloodletting becomes phlebotomy
Regardless of what it’s called, bloodletting is moving out of remote communities and into your backyard. “Phlebotomy” is the term Western practitioners use to describe the controlled removal of blood from the body.
In fact, a 2012 study by BMC Medicine recommends using phlebotomy to help patients with metabolic syndrome (METS). The study contends that patients subjected to the process have shown “improvements of markers of cardiovascular risk and glycemic control.” Put simply, the study says removing blood helps regulate patients’ circulatory function.
Phlebotomy or blood donation is also commonly used to treat hemochromatosis—or a build-up of iron—the only treatment for which is regular blood removal.
Despite studies and common practices linking blood removal to specific health benefits, U.S. institutions have still not adopted this as a commonly-accepted method of treatment, says Dr. Jennifer Burns of The Bienetre Center.
So what about leeches?
Studies started cropping up as early as 2001 extolling the benefits of using leeches in the treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee.
Leeches actually have the same blood-thinning properties in their saliva as those found in manufactured medicines like Aspirin and Coumadin, says Nick Angeles, MSN, CRNA, author of How to Succeed in Anesthesia School (And RN, PA, or Med School). In fact, blood thinners made from leeches are often used to treat patients allergic to other medication.
Recent studies have also indicated a benefit to using leeches for healing wounds following a surgery. The body can have difficulty draining blood from tissues that are reattached through surgery, explains Angeles. The blood-thinning capability of leeches is useful in the prevention of clots in cases like these.
But before you go jumping in the nearest swamp to relieve your knee pain, make sure you consult with your doctor. In other words, “bathing in a dirty pond waiting for them to latch on is not the preferred method,” Angeles jokes.
There are FDA-approved companies such as Ricarimpex SAS that manufacture and distribute leeches to medical facilities. But the use of leeches for medical purposes is still being investigated, according to Nathan Wei, MD at the Arthritis Treatment Center. He advises consulting with your primary physician if you are interested.
Caring for the blood of others
Everyone knows blood is critical to human health. And with up to two gallons of this nutrient-dense fluid flowing through the human body, it makes up a large part of our mass and helps to do cool things like regulate temperature and carry vitamins to places they’re needed.
Working toward a specialization in phlebotomy means that while you probably won’t be finding the next use for leeches in modern medicine, in as little as nine months, you could help cure patients using some of the techniques mentioned above. Or at least you can run their blood work. And who knows, maybe help be part of an important diagnosis that changes their life.