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Can leeches treat varicose veins?

I recently read an article from last year that talked about a doctor in New York using leeches to treat varicose veins. I know that leeches were used a long time ago to treat all kinds of things, but is there any evidence that they work for varicose veins? Is this just an old wives' tale?

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Doctors Answers (5)

Not that I know; I don't see how they would help medically for varicose veins.

In the past, leeches were found to have a beneficial effect on several conditions by improving circulation and by preventing and reversing of blood clots. When a leech attaches to the skin it will apply a potent anesthetic so the bite is not felt and the leech may proceed with its meal of blood. It will then also secrete a potent anti-coagulant (blood thinner) that will allow easy and quick flow of the blood from the small wound. Leeches were used when the only other potent blood thinner was the "miracle drug" aspirin. It was not clear at the time why a leech would be beneficial and so the theory that loss of blood was incorrectly accepted which lead to the useless and even dangerous practice of blood-letting of the ill. Today, medical grade leeches are used in the re-attachment of severed parts such as fingers and limbs. The anticoagulant that they secrete is vital to opening up and maintaining the micro-circulation in the tissues and keep the tissues oxygenated. Leeches would have no effect on varicose veins but other highly effective treatments are available.

It is most unlikely to work for varicose veins for several reasons. Firstly varicose veins are usually associated with an underlying condition called venous insufficiency. The varicose veins are like a pressure relief valve caused by the back pressure from below. Without treating the cause there is little reason or success in just treating veins on the surface. Secondly leeches inject a substance to reduce clotting so the blood is easier for them to consume. With the back pressure in the veins it would only bleed more profusely not clot off.

Varicose veins usually have incompetent valves and are stretched out like a balloon that has been repetitively inflated. Once the elasticity of the vein and the valves are no longer effective you will get continued stagnant flow and dial action of the vein. Leeches are only able to draw the blood from the veins on the surface of the skin, and then these veins will fill again. You could simply insert a needle and syringe and remove blood from the vein. This only has a short term effect. Complete closure of incompetent veins will prevent the refilling. Using a graded compression stocking with appropriate pressure will force blood from the varicose veins back into competent circulation. This will also relieve edema and painful symptoms associated with varicose veins.

Treatment with leeches is referred to as hirudotheraphy in modern medicine. I've heard of them treating grafts or flaps with leaches in plastic surgery or reconstructive surgery but not usually for treating varicose veins. The leeches are applied to the skin graft to decongest it, decrease swelling and help the graft or flap survive. Their saliva has been used to create hirudin which is an anticoagulant used to treat blood clots. It has been said that leeches can help the symptoms of varicose veins and some people have used them to treat venous ulcers. This is not a conventional therapy and has not been used to treat the problem just help the symptoms.

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