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Take One Leech and Call me in the Morning

April 20, 2017

One of the last things a patient imagines seeing as they look across a sterile operating room are leeches, maggots and scum-sucking fish. But, all three have earned a solid place in the medical community based on the results they achieve – simply by doing what comes naturally.

The Flies Have It

Maggots are nothing more than fly larvae: one of the most basic forms of life. But to many patients with wounds that refuse to respond to conventional treatment, they are a godsend. For the majority of people recovering from life-threatening wounds, contusions and limb re-attachments, antibiotics provide much of the follow-up care they need. But for a small percentage of patients who do not respond to modern medicines, maggots slither in to fill the gap.

Unlike most other living creatures, maggots thrive on dead tissue. Applied to a dressing that is made in the form of a small “cage”, maggots are applied to almost any area that does not respond well to conventional treatment. The 1mm maggot thrives on consuming dead tissue (a process called “debridement”), while ignoring healthy areas. After several days, the maggots are removed after having consumed up to ten times their own weight in dead tissue, cleaning the wound and leaving an ammonia-like anti-microbial enzyme behind.

While maggot therapy may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it is effective in treating diseases like diabetes where restricting circulation, for any reason, can often result in nerve damage and even the loss of limbs.

Golden Age of Leeches

Similar to its distant cousin the maggot, leeches are small animal organisms that have been used by physicians and barbers for over 4,000 years for treating everything from headaches, to gout to – gulp – hemorrhoids. And while they might appear to be on the low end of the evolution scale, it might surprise you to learn that they have 32 brains!

Leeches feed on the blood of humans and other animals by piercing the skin with a long proboscis. Often times, this is the most effective way to drain a post-surgical area of blood and can actually facilitate the healing process. At the same time that they attach themselves to their host, they inject a blood-thinning anti-coagulant until they have consumed up to 5 times their own body weight in blood. The host animal rarely feels the leech’s bite because it injects a local anesthetic to the skin before it pierces the skin.

Leeches are raised commercially around the world with the majority coming from France, Hungary, Ukraine, Rumania, Egypt, Algeria, Turkey and the United States. They were used extensively until the 19th Century until the “Golden Age of Leeches” was usurped by the introduction of antibiotics. Hirudotherapy, or the use of leeches, has enjoyed a recent resurgence after their demonstrated ability to heal patients when other more conventional means have failed.

The Doctor Fish is In

Another unlikely ally to the medical community is the “Doctor Fish” that is found in bathing pools in Kangal, a small town in Turkey. The therapeutic pools in Kangal are a popular destination for people suffering from fractures, joint traumas, gynecological maladies and skin diseases. While the pools themselves have a number of beneficial qualities such as the presence of selenium (a mineral that protects against free radicals and helps with wound healing), they are most famous for the Doctor Fish that make them their home.

At only 15 to 20cm in length, Doctor Fish are relatively small and do not physically attach themselves to their host like leeches or maggots. Instead, they surround a body, striking and licking it. They are particularly fond of eating psoriatic plaque and other skin diseases that have been softened by the water, eating only the dead and hyper-keratinized tissue while leaving the healthy tissue behind.

While many people might be uncomfortable being surrounded by a school of fish feasting on their skin, many actually enjoy the pleasant and relaxing sensation of getting a “micro-massage.”

Written for and excerpted from Armchair Reader The Gigantic Reader – West Side Publishing (September 7, 2009)

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