Blood-sucking leeches treat osteoarthritis

Two reports from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany support the role of leeches (Hirudo medicinalis) to treat osteoarthritis of the knee. The first included 16 patients who, in addition to other treatments, received four medicinal leeches on the inflamed knee for 80 minutes. The response was compared to 6 patients given conventional pain treatment. The second study was of similar design in 51 patients.

Both studies reported that leech therapy helped relieve symptoms as well or better than topically applied anti-inflammatory medicine. In one study, pain relief started within a day and lasted for 4 weeks and the treatment was well tolerated, aside from the initial discomfort associated with the leech bite.

In the larger study, the difference in pain scores was no longer significant after day 7. However, differences in function, stiffness, and total symptoms remained significant in favor of leech therapy until the end of study and for quality of life until day 28.

It’s possible this is really just one study with additional patients included in the second analysis.

The authors offer possible reasons for the positive response. Leech saliva contains several substances (eg, vasodilators, enzyme inhibitors) that might result in pain relief. There might also be a placebo-response.

Regardless, the results were sufficient to interest The Continuum Center for Health and Healing at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, which now offers leech therapy as part of its CAM treatments.

Caution. There is a report of a patient who experienced GI bleeding following leech therapy. He was also taking aspirin. However, the authors concluded that the timing of the bleeding following the leech treatment plus the fact that leech saliva produces antithrombotic and platelet aggregation inhibition, made the leech a contributing factor in this adverse event.

Illustration: Mike’s RPG Center

10/15/06 14:13 JR

Hi, I’m JR

John Russo, Jr., PharmD, is president of The MedCom Resource, Inc. Previously, he was senior vice president of medical communications at www.Vicus.com, a complementary and alternative medicine website.