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Leech Therapy: Ancient healing tech

A few months back, I received a call from my brother asking about the availability of leeches. What surprised me was that he is a conventional Modern Orthopaedic Surgeon, with hands being his super speciality. How come he, of all people, was asking for something used in Traditional Ayurvedic medicine and treatment.

We have numerous arguments and discussions on the merits of Ayurvedic treatments and modern medicine. This is usually our favourite dinner time conversation whenever we are able to catch up.

He was looking for medicinal leeches to perform leech therapy on one of his patients and I was stunned, to say the least, that modern medicine is finally waking up to the benefits of this timeless therapy.

In Ayurveda, leeches have been used for bloodletting detox therapies for as long as Ayurveda has existed. Which is an estimated 4000 years. This treatment is held so highly in managing disorders that the God of good health- Dhanwantari sports a leech in one of his four hands, others being a discus, a pot of nectar and a conch shell.

It was used in ancient times so extensively that almost all medicinal practices of that time Yunani (Persian medicine), Siddha (Medicine from the Indian peninsula), etc utilised it in their disease management.

Now it has rekindled excitement in the ‘modern’ scientific community and the leeches are being researched to understand their benefits.

The modern classification of leeches places the bloodsucking leeches in the Hirudo genus due to the anticoagulant hirudin that they secrete to be able to suck blood. Their saliva contains numerous anti-inflammatories and analgesic agents.

There are 700 to 1000 known varieties of leeches out of which only a few are used for medicinal purposes. They are classified according to the ecosystems they dwell in. For medicine freshwater, blood-sucking leeches are used.

Ayurveda classifies leeches into only two types viz… poisonous and non-poisonous. The non-poisonous varieties are used for treatment.

In Ayurveda, they are used for local bloodletting in bone and joints related disorders like soft tissue injuries, torn ligaments, arthritis, gout, spondylosis, etc. They are used for both pain relief and treatment. In localised skin disorders that have Vata and Pitta vitiation, leech therapy provides relief. I have seen a reduction in patches, irritation, dryness and itching. We also use them for treating hypertension, premature cataract, frozen shoulder, etc.

The decision of using leech therapy depends on a medical understanding of the etiology, progression and prognosis of a disorder and the body constitution of the patient.

According to a study by Dr Federich R. Govedich and Dr Bonnie A. Bain, Southern Utah University and Northern Arizona University, USA, despite their close association with medieval medicine, leeches today are used for a variety of medical purposes including providing useful treatments for arthritis, blood clotting disorders, varicose veins and other circulatory disorders and are also used in modern plastic and reconstructive surgery.

In my practice, I have healed many patients from many chronic disorders using Leech Therapy as a part of the treatment plan. One of my patients from Germany was here in India for a holiday. He had suffered from a frozen shoulder 12 years back. With physiotherapy, his pain had reduced but the range of motion of the shoulder joint had reduced considerably. He could not lift his right arm from his shoulder at all.

After the first setting of his leech therapy, he came to my consulting, the next day, smiling. “I brushed my teeth with my own hands after 12 years. Thank you, doctor,” were his exact words.

The remarkable results from many more such cases that I have managed for the last 14 years of my practice have made this an integral part of my therapies. My specialisation in treating Sports and Accident Injuries, as well as Age-related Disorders, requires the extensive use of Leech Therapy.

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