Can Leech Therapy Save Your Life?

In an emergency, survival can depend on using unconventional, and often, let’s face it, gross methods, like leech therapy, to treat a host of health problems.

Why Actual, Non-Crazy Doctors Recommend It

Most of us in the western world wouldn’t consider leeches as a viable, accepted modern medical treatment (attach 3 leeches and call me in the morning), but we’d be wrong.

Believe it or not, a particular species of leech, the Hirudo Medicinalis, was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration in 2004 for use as a “medical device”. In case you’d like to stock up, a medicinal leech has a shelf life of around three years in a fridge and is most effective when kept hungry for a few months prior to use. 

They can help:

  • Improve circulation
  • Reduce severe venous engorgement
  • Relieve pain
  • Treat colds, nausea, and fevers
  • Cure flatulence (though you may just want to skip the re-fried beans instead)

But leeches in medicine are nothing new.

The History of a Gross Medical Treatment

Leech therapy has been used by doctors for centuries to treat a number of ailments. However, many doctors took the idea a little too far. Bloodletting was a popular practice from Biblical times up to the Victorian era with the belief that “bad” blood was causing illness, and leeches were often used to “cure” the patient.

Miraculously, after days, sometimes weeks, of bloodletting, patients didn’t complain of their ailments anymore, due to the fact that they were dead.

Fortunately, excessive bloodletting is no longer practiced. However, leech therapy continued in modern western hospitals even prior to getting the official stamp of approval from the FDA.

Experts in the surgical field actually rely a lot on leech therapy. In fact, an outstanding tale is of a boy whose ear was saved because of leeches. Back in 1985, a Harvard doctor almost gave up trying to reattach the ear of his five-year-old patient because the veins kept clotting. Thanks to an anti-inflammatory, vasodilation enzyme, called hirudin, in the leeches’ saliva, the operation was a success.

Leeches have been used successfully in many other microvascular procedures including toe, finger, and scalp reattachments, skin grafts, breast reconstruction, skin flap surgery, and even limb transplants.

Unfortunately for all you eco-nuts out there, medicinal leeches cannot be reused or recycled due to possible infection and bacterial contamination, but in the wild you may not be so particular.

3 Benefits of Leech Therapy in the Wild

Leeches are found in fresh water lakes, streams and Humphrey Bogart films. Check out these strange ways to use leeches during emergencies in the wilderness.

1. Leeches in curing poisonous bites

Ever since the first human emerged from the primordial soup, covered with bloodsucking parasites, leeches have been part of ancient healing techniques. They have the ability to suck out blood affected by toxins that have entered muscle tissues and the inner layers of skin. They can be used to effectively treat wounds caused by poisonous plants and insect bites.

The leech is only effective on poisons that damage shallow tissues (e.g.: skin) and not on hemotoxins or neurotoxins, like those found in venomous snakes, scorpions and poisonous frogs. These types of toxins can spread quickly through the circulatory system, and leeches are not particularly effective in treating these types of bites.

Still, if you’re bitten by a rattler and you’ve got some leeches handy, might as well give it a try.

2. Leeches in curing gangrene

Gangrenous tissues are hard to treat even by modern science, but leeches can prevent damaged muscles and skin from becoming gangrenous by allowing normal blood circulation. A study by scientists in the UK (where leeches are regularly used in over 100 hospitals) found out that leeches have a chemical in their saliva that stops blood from clotting.

Gangrene forms when no blood enters tissues of a certain body part due to an untreated laceration, infection or other severe trauma. Place leeches directly on the injury site for best results. Note that blood will continue to flow, for a while anyway, even after the leeches have been removed.

3. Leeches in curing asthma attacks

In homeopathic treatments, leeches are used for their anesthetizing and anti-inflammatory properties as well, making them effective against asthma that causes the inflammation of air passages. However, these creatures are eaten or drunk (from boiled leeches), so you may find the method gross. Many people attest to their effectiveness, though. Plus, they’re packed with protein.


When you’re in the woods, it’s less likely that medical help will arrive in a snap, so you need to be open to even the craziest of ideas. Surviving is all about improvising. If you’re resourceful and are daring enough to do just about anything, like try leech therapy, your chances of survival are bound to improve.

At the very least, you’ll have a good story to tell.

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