Leeches May Be Making a Medical Comeback

ByABC News
January 16, 2004, 11:00 AM

Jan. 21 -- They may be slimy, blood sucking worms, but leeches can help you heal, and may also ease your knee pain.

The three-jawed creatures have long had a role in medicine, dating to at least as far back as 1500 B.C. when ancient wall art shows Egyptians applying the worms to patients for bloodletting. In the 1800s, leeches became a widespread treatment preferred by doctors throughout the United States and Europe.

But by the late 19th century, modern medicine mostly abandoned the worm in favor of less grotesque pharmacology.

Now the leech appears to be making a comeback.

In a recent study published in the journal, Annals of Internal Medicine, Andreas Michalsen of the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany, describes how placing four to six leeches on an aching knee suffering from osteoarthritis eased pain better than the leading topical anti-inflammatory treatment.

The process involved 70 minutes of sucking (about the time it takes a leech to fill its belly) on a daily basis for up to 90 days. Those who submitted their knees to the worms reported they felt more relief for the first seven days than those who applied the topical cream twice a day. Michalsen says those who underwent the therapy for 90 days also felt relief, but since there were fewer patients who were treated this long, the results weren't statistically significant.

"The pain relief was still evident," Michalsen said, adding that most of the patients were not put off by the leech treatment, but actually found it "fascinating."

While the findings were promising, the author and others admit that the leeches' benefits aren't yet proven.

The Placebo Problem

One problem, says Marc Hochberg of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is that this was not and could not be a blind study. Those who were receiving the leech therapy knew it and those who were not knew it too.