Leech saliva is made up of more than 30 different proteins that help to numb pain, reduce swelling, and keep blood flowing. They can help prevent blood clotting so a wound can bleed for hours after the leech is removed. Depending on the size of the wound, a doctor may apply anywhere from 1 to 6 leeches. Leeches, along with maggots, were recently classified as the first living medical devices.
Historically, leeches were a big part of medicinal care. Medieval doctors often practiced bloodletting (now called phlebotomy) as a means of balancing the “humors” that were believed to maintain health in a person. If a person’s humors were out of balance (evidenced by illness), bloodletting would be used as a method of restoring the natural balance and returning the patient to health. Bloodletting was often done with a knife called a lancet, but in places that were too sensitive or difficult to reach, doctors would apply leeches to remove the blood. Using leeches was so popular in the 19th century that leeches became an endangered species around Europe. Bloodletting and the use of leeches lost popularity for a time, but now they are occasionally used in surgery—some surgeons have found that leeches are useful in helping encourage and restore blood circulation to a re-attached appendage.
Leeches are great at improving campillary flow and reducing bruising. I know this because my grandfather used to purchase leeches from the local apothecary to use on black eyes that he aquired during his younger days. Apparently, the leeches worked quite well in this regard and his parents were non-the-wiser to his exploits.
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