Monday, February 20, 2012

Medical Mondays: Leech Therapy

On the invertebrate tail of last week's post on maggot therapy, there were a number of comments about leech therapy.

Hirudo medicinalis needs it's own post, don't you think?

For hundreds of years, bloodletting was considered a way to "even out" the humors of the body, which included blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. (I'm going to have to do a whole post on humors and bloodletting. This stuff is too interesting!) The first documented usage of leeches happened in 200 BC by a Greek physician.

Someone who suffered from too much of the "sanguine" or blood humor tended to have flushed skin. This is also why people with infections and fevers, also looking flushed, were bled.

Get this man some leeches, STAT!
Leeches were attached to the skin, the leeches did their thing, and voila! The person was supposed to be better.

Sort of.

Leeches have two interesting compounds in their saliva--an anticoagulant called hirudin and an anesthetic.  That way, once the leech bites, the host has no idea and the blood keeps flowing nicely, since most animals are equipped to clot off a cut pretty soon after a bite. Mosquitoes have their own way to keep the blood flowing too.

Adult leeches can suck down 15x their body weight and not need to eat again for a year. They are hermaphrodites. I used to work in a lab in college, and one of the neighboring labs studied leeches. They used to feed them by hanging condoms filled with blood into their tanks. Let's say it together, shall we? Eww.

After a bite, leeches will leave an inverted Y mark surrounded by a circle (like the Mercedes logo.)

Today, the hirudin compound if now synthesized and used an an anticoagulant to prevent blood clots.

Leeches themselves are used to help promote circulation after reconstructive and microsurgery for two reasons:
  • Leeches can decompress tissues engorged from bleeding or poor venous circulation
  • They can remove hematomas (collections of blood)
  • Once detached, the bite sites continue to bleed, which can promote circulation of the affected tissue.
I remember the leeches in the movies Stand By Me and The African Queen, as well as a memorable scene from On the Banks of Plum Creek, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

Do remember any good leech scenes from books you've read? Do you have any plans to use them in your writing?

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50 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I remember reading about them in some historical fiction but I remember them more being misused to treat the plague. :) Icky post but fun.

Natalie Aguirre said...

I can't remember them in a story. I agree with Laura. Icky but fun post.

Old Kitty said...

Les Liaisons Dangereuses! Leeches for poor Madame De Tourvel - I don't remember it in the book but it was in the film!

Take care
x

Nancy said...

Yeah, Stand by Me is the one that leaps to my mind because th ey did it so well. I think maybe in Jude Deveroux's A Knight in Shining Armour where the protagonist is from the future she may refuse to let them use leeches on someone but I might be confusing books.

Sarah said...

I will never look at a Mercedes logo the same way again. Thanks for grossing me out for two weeks in a row, Lydia! <--I mean that in the friendliest, most admiring way possible, you know.

Karen Lange said...

Wasn't planning on using them in the WIP, but if I ever do otherwise, will be sure and consult this! You'll be my go-to gal for sure. :)

Uncle Grumpy Bulldog said...

That's a pretty widely used thing in movies if characters are walking in a swamp there's got to be leeches and maybe alligators or crocodiles too. Are you really supposed to not pull them off and instead burn them with a cigarette?

Connie Keller said...

I was hoping you'd do a leech blog post! I remember them in the African Queen, but I can't remember reading about them in any novels.

Thanks for the leech post!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Urgh. I really have to watch what I read over breakfast at your blog on Monday mornings!

I do remember The African Queen scene! Now you've got me wondering if that movie is available on Netflix streaming ... It might make a nice afternoon break from editing later today.

Coleen Patrick said...

I like to read historical fiction so leeches show up every now and then :)
Right now I'm imagining a very odd commercial for Mercedes--I don't think they'd like it! lol

LTM said...

eeewwww!!! :D And I do remember that from Banks of Plum Creek! Leeches are gross. The part I remember was from... what was that where they were all covered in leeches? Papillyon? I know I spelled that wrong.

It seems like I remember Demi Moore was doing leech therapy for something. And look what's happened to her. ;p j/k <3

Linda Gray said...

Eww is right! Okay, tell the truth. I've known enough doctors/medical students to know they can't survive without making tacky jokes about their work sometimes. That Mercedes bite mark is just too good--did the researches give leeches a special name with a Mercedes slogan?

Meredith said...

Ewww! I definitely remember that scene from the Little House books--it grossed me out! Although the blood-letting philosophy they used to have is fascinating to me.

lbdiamond said...

Wow, I'll never look at a Mercedes symbol the same way again.

Nice post!

Matthew MacNish said...

Roose Bolton gets leeched a lot in A Game of Thrones (actually later books, but that's what the show is called). Fascinating to hear there is actually some medical benefit to leeches. I always thought old doctors were just quacks.

Colene Murphy said...

Buuuuughh!! Leeches give me the willies for sure. But, very cool about them! I didn't know they could do the whole no clotty thing. Very crafty...

Jax said...

LOL at a leech leaving a Mercedes logo on someone's arm. What a way to look at it! hahaha

Indigo said...

Okay, I totally missed the maggot post...*blink*. Leeches are a walk in the park compared to maggots. I do see the use of each of them.

Nope, no plans to use either yet, but you definitely left some possibilities open. (Hugs)Indigo

Bossy Betty said...

Leeches have always fascinated me since watching bad westerns as a kid. Thanks for reigniting my interest!

Munk said...

I remember having a leech, does that count, or does that just suck?

Catherine Stine said...

Ooh, I do love a gross post!!!!
I have nightmares about leeches and worms.
And I've had a leech or two ON me: once in South Carolina when I waded in a stream. Another time in Michigan when we swam in an infested lake. They hitch on in an instant and begin their suckfest Immediately. It's hard to pull them off once they start. I'm getting the willies just remembering it.

Emy Shin said...

I saw a leech once attached to my cousin's leg while playing in a stream. We freaked out, of course. But it's awesome to learn all the cool things about leeches!

Lenny Lee* said...

hi miss lydia! wowee! leeches! cool! im thinking bout get a couple for pets. ha ha. now i got an idea for a story about vampire leeches and im gonna call them veeches. invasion of the veeches! son of veech! bride of veech! scary for sure. ha ha. dont worry they wont hurt you they just wanna suck your blood. yeeeek!
...hugs from lenny

Nancy Thompson said...

Does that mean some physicians still use them? Or hospitals? Do they keep them in stock? And what do they do with them after they've been "used"? Scary how curious I am about this subject.

Wendy Ewurum said...

it's fascinating reading about them but I must say they just freak me out. I hate watching them on tv, they were on a Greyson anatomy episode once and they're always in scary movies that have creeks.

Olga said...

I know about leeches being used in medicine, but it was interesting to learn the details from your post.

Wendy Ewurum said...

it's fascinating reading about them but I must say they just freak me out. I hate watching them on tv, they were on a Greyson anatomy episode once and they're always in scary movies that have creeks.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Letting a live, slimy creature suck on you - sorry, couldn't do it! And I do remember the scene in Stand By Me. What man could forget?

mooderino said...

Not my favourite creature. Does appear in a lot of books and films though.

mood

DL Hammons said...

*shivers* 'Nuff said!! :)

Al Penwasser said...

Leeches?
That sucks.
Incidentally, if my condom is ever filled with blood, I'm getting to the ER. Stat.
And they better not trot out any leeches, either.

Jeremy said...

I found this post very interesting, but I don't think I will ever look at a Mercedes the same again.

Kelly Polark said...

When I was in 7th grade, we had a colonial fair and I headed the apothecary. So I had leeches. No one wanted to try them though! :)

Angela Brown said...

I ewwed from the beginning of the post. And I definitely remember Stand by Me. When that kid took the last one out of his...well, you know...I felt nauseated for him and I'm a girl.

The Golden Eagle said...

Thanks to The Series of Unfortunate Events, all I think of when leeches are mentioned is a bunch of terrifying creatures with (practically) endless teeth. :P

Interesting post!

Carrie Butler said...

Hah! Your photo comment cracked me up. "Get this man some leeches, STAT!" Great post, as always!

JEFritz said...

Okay: ewwwww.

It's interesting, though, how an old method like applying leeches can help, just not for the reason everyone used to think. Blood-letting, ugh.

Carol Kilgore said...

Gives a whole new meaning to the expressing 'bite me'.

Carol Kilgore said...

Excuse me - expression, not expressing. Arg.

catherinemjohnson said...

Nice!

Leslie Rose said...

I remember a TV medical show where a leech saved a lost hikers nose from frostbite. The patient wanted to keep the leech in the jar as a pet.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Very interesting! I'm afraid I only remember the Stand by Me scene with the leeches. As a kid, though, I swam in a lake that had leeches in it. Blech. Happily, I never found an engorged one.

Also, thanks for the MedMonday information and the two psychological blogs. I find it all very interesting.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

Susan Fields said...

Ewww. Fascinating post, but ewww.

Julie Dao said...

So cool, yet so gross! I actually just wrote about this for work not long ago. Leeches eating dead skin is not really the best topic to think about before lunch, but somehow I managed :D

Ciara said...

I always thought the leeching thing was fascinating, in a disturbing sort of way. :)

Krispy said...

Eck, leeches. There's something that's just really squicky about them. Thank you for not posting any pics of actual leeches. -__-'

Southpaw said...

I don't know any good book scenes, but I have seen a leech attachment (hiking with people who DID NOT wear boots and trampled through the water). It was a little freaky.

Jennifer Hillier said...

I loved this post, and of course it immediately reminded me of the movie Stand By Me. (Was it also in The Body, the novella? Can't remember now, will have to reread.)

I have a weird fascination with all things bloody.

Jay Noel said...

The only movie I can think of where leeches were involved is in the movie Stand By Me. "Leeches!!!!!"

I used to sell infusion pumps, and worked quite a bit with blood. It's amazing how medical science still employs ancient methods.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Yes, I had my healer-type MC deliberately NOT use a leech as the first course of action (historical fiction). But important to realize that they have their uses!

 
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