Leeches: Beneficial Bloodsuckers

Nov 1, 2010 - 3:40 PM
While leeches look cringe-worthy, they are an invaluable tool in helping heal sport horse injuries. Photo by Catherine Haddad.

Dear Rita,

Try not to be squeamish about the subject matter! Leeches can be very helpful in treating various sport horse injuries, particularly when the injured area needs increased circulation.

History of the medicinal use of leeches dates as far back as 500 BC with an almost frenetic increase in their use during the European Renaissance period. The continued increase in the use of leeches throughout Europe and the Americas through the 1800s pushed Hirudo Medicinalis nearly to the point of extinction in its natural habitat.

Advances in modern medicine led to a decreased use of leeches in the early 1900s, but there has been a renewed interest in the use of these slimy little bloodsuckers in human medicine in recent years, particularly in the field of microvascular surgery. Medicinal leeches are now organically bred and raised for medicinal uses at leech farms in the United States, Great Britain and other European countries.

Leeches have an oval shaped mouth containing triangular jaws which sport anywhere from 100-240 teeth. Usually, both ends of a leech have suction ability, with the tail used for support and the mouth used to attach and suck blood. The body of the leech serves as a pump which literally pumps blood out of the small puncture wound created by its teeth.

While the sucking of blood is the most notorious characteristic of a leech, it is what the leech excretes into its host through its saliva that is most healing and therefore most interesting to medical practitioners. Leeches excrete a local anesthetic in their saliva that deadens the prick of their bite. They also excrete a variety of anti-inflammatory substances and a powerful anti-coagulant that thins the blood and keeps it from clotting.

So as Mr. Leech is getting his dinner, his body is pumping extra thin blood out of and through an area that needs more circulation while injecting a local anti-inflammatory into the site. In micro surgery—especially in the case of transplanted organs or tissues such as skin, noses and ears—one of the most difficult tasks for proper healing is to get veins to return to normal blood flow after surgery. Arteries are easy to stitch together, and circulation through them often returns to normal without difficulty. But veins are thin walled, more difficult to stitch and often less cooperative in returning to a normal blood flow after surgery.

When leeches are applied to an area that needs more vascular activity, they stimulate the return of natural circulation through both veins and arteries that may have been comprised by surgery or injury. And the anti-coagulant that is excreted into the bloodstream by a leech insures that blood flow from the attachment site will continue even after the leech has drunk its fill and dropped off the host. In fact, the blood that flows from a leech bite after it detaches is usually 10 times the volume consumed by the leech itself.

It is this continued blood flow from the small puncture wounds after detachment that promotes circulation in injured areas and a return to normal blood flow.

Confirmed results from the use of leeches in human medicine have led to their increased use for the treatment of injuries in sport horses. For instance, tendons and ligaments have notoriously poor circulation compared to other tissues in the body due to their lack of vascularity. Leeches applied to the area of an injured ligament will not only suction off blood and edema (swelling) from the site, but also create circulation and vastly improved blood flow through the entire injury zone. And the injection of natural anti-inflammatory is an added bonus.  

Martina Maeter of the Kathmann Vital rehabilitation center for horses is trained in the use of medicinal leeches. I also take my horses to aqua training at Kathmann Vital as seen in a previous blog.

Have a look, Rita (Warning, this video is a bit graphic):

I’m Catherine Haddad, and I’m sayin it like it is from Vechta, Germany.

Training Tip of the Day: Past traditions in combination with modern advancements may help your horse—both in his training and the management of his health.




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