Because many of the drugs used to treat osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis cause such serious side effects, there has been an increased interest in alternative treatments for these disorders. A study published in 2003, led by Michalsen, evaluated the use of leeches to treat osteoarthritis of the knee. Previous studies had indicated that 4 locally applied leeches rapidly reduced knee pain. This study assessed the short-term effect of leech therapy on symptoms related to osteoarthritis. There were 51 patients in the study, 24 receiving leech therapy, and the others receiving topical diclofenac therapy.
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The treatments consisted of one leech therapy treatment with 4 to 6 locally applied
leeches or a 28-day topical diclofenac regimen (control group). Both groups were
evaluated for pain, function, and stiffness. An evaluation was conducted at 7
days, at which time the leech group reported approximately a 64% reduction in
pain while the control group reported an 18% reduction. The initial pain reduction
achieved by the leech therapy was significant, but after 7 days, the control group
caught up in relation to pain reduction. However, the leech group had significantly
more improvement in functional stiffness and total symptoms, suggesting that leech
therapy should be considered for treatment of osteoarthritis of the knee. The
study did not evaluate the frequency of necessary retreatment. The therapy was
well-accepted by the patients, whose only complaint was moderate itching at the
site. The researchers concluded that leech therapy could be a useful NSAID-sparing
treatment for osteoarthritis.
Since the original study, Michalsen and associates have conducted a larger unpublished study of 400 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. Eighty percent reported significant reduction of pain after a week and 40% still showed benefit after 6 months. Michalsen suggested that in the future they may choose to reapply leeches twice a year to maintain pain and symptom control.
Another study evaluated the effect of leech therapy in treatment of muscular syndrome in 51 patients with osteoarthritis and 54 patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Patients were treated with 4-20 leeches 1 to 5 times, using leeches on the painful muscles surrounding the joints. All patients showed clinical improvement that included the following:
The researchers concluded that the therapy was safe and effective for both rheumatoid
arthritis and osteoarthritis.