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Day 11 of Our 31 Day Series of How Medicine Got It Wrong

A Long and Lively Look at the Leech: Languishing in Legends, Living in Laboratories, and Lovingly Applied for Healing

The use of medical leeches, or hirudotherapy, has a long history dating back thousands of years. Leeches were used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, among other civilizations, to treat a variety of medical conditions.

In medieval Europe, leeches were commonly used by physicians as a way to balance the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) and remove excess blood from the body. This was based on the theory that many illnesses were caused by an imbalance of the humors, and that bleeding could restore balance.

In the 19th century, leeches became even more popular as a medical treatment, particularly in France and England. They were used to treat a wide range of conditions, from headaches and hemorrhoids to tuberculosis and mental illness.

One of the most famous practitioners of hirudotherapy was Dr. François-Joseph-Victor Broussais, a French physician who believed that most illnesses were caused by inflammation in the body. He used leeches to remove blood and reduce inflammation, often applying dozens of leeches at a time to his patients.

However, the use of leeches as a medical treatment fell out of favor in the early 20th century with the development of modern medicine and the discovery of antibiotics. It wasn't until the 1980s that medical leeches began to be used again, primarily in the field of reconstructive surgery.

Today, leeches are used to help promote blood circulation and prevent blood clots in surgeries such as skin grafts and reattachment of fingers and toes. They can also be used to relieve the symptoms of certain medical conditions, such as arthritis and varicose veins.

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  1. Siddall, M. E., Minelli, A., & Boxshall, G. (Eds.). (2019). The leech book: A guide to the collection and identification of leeches (Hirudinea). Field Studies Council.

  2. Michalsen, A., Lüdtke, R., Cesur, O., Afra, D., Sleight, A. J., & Dobos, G. J. (2003). Effectiveness of leech therapy in women with symptomatic arthrosis of the first carpometacarpal joint: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of alternative and complementary medicine, 9(6), 847-855.

  3. Whitaker, I. S., Rao, J., Izadi, D., Butler, P. E., & Leach, P. (2004). Hirudo medicinalis and the plastic surgeon. British journal of plastic surgery, 57(4), 348-353.

  4. Caponetti, G. C., & Canzoneri, B. J. (2004). Historical review of the medical use of leeches. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association, 94(2), 188-191.

  5. Ernst, E. (2005). The efficacy of hirudotherapy: a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. International Journal of Clinical Practice, 59(3), 293-297.

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