I'm looking for firsthand experiences with leech or maggot therapy.
February 5, 2013 10:15 AM   Subscribe

Have you or anyone you know ever tried leech or maggot therapy? What was it like--did it work?
posted by gottabefunky to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I know a guy (a contractor) who accidentally cut two or three fingers off his left hand. The fingers were saved and reattached, and leeches were used to help the reattachment process. He has the fingers still, and I believe they are mostly or entirely functional.
posted by rtha at 10:18 AM on February 5, 2013

My grandfather was a pharmacist, and my father grew up behind the soda fountain at the family drug store.

As my father tells it, among the pharmacy supplies were leeches, which my grandfather kept in a jar of water. The typical user was a man who had gotten into a bar fight the night before and had a black eye. My grandfather would place a leech on the black eye, and it would drain out the excess blood.

Apparently it worked very well.
posted by alms at 10:31 AM on February 5, 2013

Under what circumstances? IIRC, leech therapy is used to restore blood flow when vessels have been compromised, and maggots are used to debride wounds of flesh that might otherwise be gangrenous -- two very different situations.
posted by KathrynT at 10:32 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I cut off the top phalange of my middle finger when I was younger. When it was reattached It had a metal pin through it so I couldn't move it. I had one or two leeches applied to the tip I want to say maybe 5 times in the first two weeks. It seems to have worked because I still have the fingertip attached and functional.

I knew they were to promote bloodflow, but I'm not exactly sure why they were prescribed. I have heard of a number of cases like mine where they just reattached the finger and that was that. I don't know what the extenuating circumstances were for me to have leeches.
posted by sanka at 10:37 AM on February 5, 2013

Leeches are commonly used in traditional hospital settings, especially when reattaching tissue (and for issues like cauliflower ear amongst rugby players). Therefore if you search, you will also find medical journals discussing success rates (quite good, according to an article I read awhile back).
posted by ldthomps at 10:42 AM on February 5, 2013

I did a newspaper interview with a plastic surgeon about the use of leeches a couple of years ago, after someone had set herself up as a leech healer-type person in Edinburgh.

As mentioned above, he said they had some very specific applications when, for example, a finger had been reattached but the blood vessels weren't draining blood from the finger adequately right after the op: They could be used to reduce the amount of blood pooling in the end of the finger. Patients were always given prophylactic antibiotics to guard against infection when leeches were applied. (I guess patients having their finger sewn back on may well be on antibiotics anyway, but he said nobody should be getting leeched without that protection).

He said any other kind of "medical" leech use was irresponsible and ill-advised, as well as ineffective (the woman in question was claiming to be able to help cure just about anything - asthma, depression, eczema, etc). From what I could work out, there's absolutely no regulation of it, either, in the UK at least.
posted by penguin pie at 10:48 AM on February 5, 2013

I had leeches applied for a couple of days after I severed both neurovascular bundles in my right index finger in a kite surfing accident.

did it work?

Yup, I still have a finger, and it functions pretty well, although I notice now that I am holding it out of the way while I type this.

What was it like

It was kind of squicky. The leeches were supposed to be confined to the finger by a little turban of gauze, soaked I think in heparin. They kept escaping. I would find them everywhere, crawling up my neck, lost in the bedsheets, and looping across the floor of my hospital room. When the leeches were "full" they had to be sacrificed, which I think we did by dropping them into a jar of formalin. This might be a hazy opiate memory but I remember them exploding in a little blood bomb as they plunged into the formalin.
posted by roofus at 12:22 PM on February 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

As for maggots (or 'gentles' as their friends like to call them) I've seen my dad use them in his veterinary practice to clean out infected wounds. I was then young enough to be grossed out, and my dad's long dead so I can't get more recent info. But yes, the maggots did clean the wounds well, leaving a nice easier-healing surface. I've no idea how the recipients of the maggots (sheep) felt, but I'd imagine the treatment could be itchy.

Another use for maggots: animating the lines drawn on the transparent sheets used in overhead projectors (if anyone remembers those). A maggot will crawl along the line to minimize the light and heat. Probably less cruel than being put on a hook. When the lecturer had done with his maggots he rolled them into his hand and tossed them into his mouth. It got our attention even though he showed later that he'd stored the maggots in his pocket and actually eaten rice krispies.
posted by anadem at 2:24 PM on February 5, 2013

Leeches are classified as medical devices by the FDA. There are two US based suppliers of leeches, pricing is not bad.
I have applied them to patients - first you prick the skin slightly to get some blood flow, then drop the leech on and see if it attaches. You can put vaseline or heparin soaked gauze around the area to corral them, but as mentioned, they tend to get full and then release their grip and end up everywhere. Then you catch them and kill them. People don't really get as grossed out as you would think.
I've never used maggots but I know they are used occasionally to clean wounds - that is they eat the dead tissue and leave the non-dead tissue untouched. There are ointments that can do similar dissolving of the dead tissue, so it seems mostly we use that.
Thanks for the memories!
posted by SyraCarol at 2:53 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yeah, leeches are used for flap surgery. A flap is kinda like a skin graft, except instead of just skin, they take the vasculature and sometimes some bone as well. When they graft this flap to the new area, it has to maintain blood flow in it's new home. Sometimes if the venous flow is impaired or too slow it can cause swelling to the point of compromised arterial flow which leads to the death of the flap- basically like compartment syndrome. Enter the leaches to help improve venous return and reduce swelling, in turn improving arterial flow and saving the flap. Woohoo! Sometimes people have jaw flaps and leeches need to used in the mouth. Then, of course, they intubate the patient and sedate the shit out of them.
posted by brevator at 6:00 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The odor of leeches going about their assigned task in my ICU after salvage or re-attachment surgery is unforgettable. Raunchy, sour, strong -- like rotting blood and the swamps they came from. We always knew when leeches were in the house.
posted by citygirl at 7:36 AM on February 6, 2013

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