History of Leech Therapy
Historically, leeches were used to remove “excess” blood as part of a tradition of bloodletting. Records show that leeches were used in Egypt 3500 or more years ago. Wall paintings from 1400 BC show the use of leeches. The fact that the old English word for a healer is laece (meaning leech) suggests the widespread use of leeches for medical treatment. Additionally, old books of remedies in England were referred to as “leechbooks.”

Because leeches were not always cooperative about latching on, often incisions were made prior to placing the leeches, combining two forms of bloodletting. Of course, not everyone survived the treatments. The use of leeches was also often combined with cupping; a warm cup or a wine glass was placed over the incision and the leech to bring as much blood as possible to the surface. Each leech absorbed about 1/2 ounce or more of blood.

Leeches were particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, when they were routinely used as a bloodletting treatment for a variety of illnesses. The commercial trade in leeches was a major industry, almost bringing about the extinction of the medicinal leech in Europe. People who were leech collectors would wade into waters infested with leeches and allow the leeches to attach themselves. Then, the leech collectors would wade back in, remove the leeches, and sell them. They could gather up to 2500 leeches in one day. (There is no word on how many died of anemia after years of this type of work!) When the natural leech supply became depleted, the French and Germans started leech farms. Elderly horses were used as leech feed and were sent into the water until they died of blood loss. Presumably, this was prior to Animal Rights organizations. During this time, Germans shipped 30 million leeches to the U.S. each year.

Almost every part of the body was thought to benefit from leech therapy. Leeches were used to treat headaches, hemorrhoids, mental illness, eye disorders, cysts, boils, and just about everything else. Tonsillitis was treated by lowering a leech, secured by a thread (“leech leash”) into the throat to attach to the swollen glands. Leeches fell out of favor after World War II as new medications and treatments were developed. Leeches were looked upon as outdated, archaic treatments until the 1960's when a few surgeons began to take a new look at an old therapy.


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