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A Medieval Practice

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A Medieval Practice

May 04, 2001
-A Veins Technology Story
by Sheila Dwyer, Veins1 Staff

An unusual suspect has become the star of reconstructive and cosmetic surgery in the past decade. Leeches, commonly used in the 1800s to drain blood, are making a comeback in operating rooms in the United States—with great results.

Leeches help staunch a condition called venous insufficiency, which can ruin the results of a surgery. Venous insufficiency occurs when blood collects in damaged tissue because the veins that usually provide drainage have been cut. If the surgeon cannot clear the buildup quickly, the blood will coagulate and form clots that can clog arteries. In that case, the tissue will die, essentially, of starvation.

The idea of using leeches to drain blood is ancient. They were used to cure illnesses as varied as gout, headaches, and general malaise until the mid-1800s. After they fell out of favor in the medical community, leeches were unused until about a decade ago. Since then, surgeons who perform reconstructive and cosmetic surgery have been using leech therapy to restore blood circulation in their patients.

Leeches can almost be regarded as a substitute vein. The creatures, approximately one to two inches long, literally drink excess blood and prevent blood clotting until new veins can grow and restore normal circulation. The leech also drools clot-preventing chemicals into the open wound while it is feeding, ensuring that blood drains from the wound site for hours after the leech has stopped drinking.

In most cases, leeches have to be used repeatedly over several days or weeks to have an effect on the wound. One leech can drink only one tablespoon of blood in about two hours before it drops off.

Because leeches are relatively inexpensive, doctors and hospitals have been using them more frequently. They also do not get many complaints from patients, who are barely able to notice the leeches. Apparently, the procedure is totally painless. Some patients say they can feel the leeches squirming on their skin, but the sensation is not repulsive.

The recent popularity of leech therapy has caused at least one company to begin to develop a mechanical leech. The mechanical leech would act like a suction, but in a less slimy way.


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