Adults are generally 7 to 8 inches in length, and can be green, brown, or greenish-brown with a darker tone on the top side with a thin red stripe and a lighter on the bottom side. At each end of the leech has there is a sucker which is called the anterior and posterior suckers. The anterior sucker has the jaw and teeth, this is where the feeding takes place, and the posterior sucker is used mainly for leverage while feeding. Medicinal leeches have three jaws that resemble little saws with approximately 100 sharp teeth used to latch onto the host which looks like a Y. Leeches saliva contains powerful anticoagulants (hirudin), anti-inflammatories, and anesthetics, so the host will not know they are latched on, and they suck out the blood. Typically the adult will eat 5-15 ml of blood in a single feeding. Most leeches only need to feed every six months and some may survive up to a year between feedings.
Medicinal Leeches Today
The most commonly used medical leech is Hirudo Medicinalis, the European medicinal leech which can lay up to 50 eggs next to muddy freshwater pools with plentiful weed growth in mild climates.
Today, medical leeches are use in procedures such as the reattachment of body parts, reconstructive, skin grafts, and plastic surgeries. In Germany, leeches are also used to treat osteoarthritis. The therapeutic effect is not from the blood taken in the meal, but from the continued and steady bleeding from the wound left after the leech has detached, as well as the anesthetizing, anti-inflammatory, and vasodilating properties of the secreted leech saliva. The most common complication from leech treatment is prolonged bleeding, which can easily be treated, although allergic reactions and bacterial infections may also occur. Around 10,000 medicinal leeches are imported to the United States annually selling at $9.00 to $12.00 each.
Historical Uses of Leeches
Leeches have been historically used in medicine to remove blood from patients. The practice of leeching or bloodletting can be traced to ancient India and Greece, continuing into the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe and North America.
In 800 B.C., Sushruta, who was also considered the father of plastic surgery, described leech therapy as bloodletting. He noted 12 different types of leeches of which 6 are non-poisonous and 6 are poisonous. Sushruta used leeches to treat skin diseases, sciatica, and musculoskeletal pains.
During medieval and early modern medicine times, Galen believed that the human body must be kept in balance to function properly. This was part of the theory of humorism also known as the four humors of ancient medical philosophy which were blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile. He used medicinal leeches to remove blood from patients as part of a process. As the theory went, a sickness that caused redness of the skin such as fever or swelling, it must be from having too much blood in the body. Behavioral issues were also thought to be caused by an excess of blood. Eventually, due to the leech’s popularity, they were farmed in large numbers.
Proper Leech Removal
WHAT TO DO:
If you wish to remove, using one hand gently pull the skin tight close to the sucker, then slide one of your fingernails from you other hand underneath the sucker. Flick it off right away because the leech will immediately try to reattach. You may also use a credit card, a sturdy piece of paper or any other thin object instead.
Or do nothing, consider just letting them be. They fill up in about 20 minutes and drop off when they are done. They do not spread diseases and are painless.
Do not yank off the leech, since this will leave its sucker attached to your body. Do not try to remove them by using salt, repellant, shampoo, fire, etc. By removing a leech this way, it causes the leech to vomit into the wound which can lead to a bad infection.