The Use of Leeches in Modern Russian Medicine

Though a squeamish idea to some, leeches have been used throughout history for a variety of reasons, some valid and some not.   From headaches to asthma, from Egypt to Asia, leeches are the medicinal accessory that won’t stop.

Leeching, also called bloodletting, was mainly used upon the premise that the removal or initiation of blood from a body would prevent or cure illness and disease. Popular for more than 2000 years, until the late 1800s, leeching has been debunked and considered “pseudoscience” except for a few specific cases.

At one time, leeching was used to combat acne, asthma, cancer, cholera, coma, convulsions, diabetes, epilepsy, and more than 100 other sicknesses and ailments.  Nosebleeds, excessive menstruation, hemorrhoid bleeding, before surgery, before childbirth – before, during, or after any major medical event, removing some of the patient’s blood was considered a helpful thing that would later benefit the body.  A French physician even believed that bloodletting would cure a broken heart.

(Spoiler Alert: it does not, and the patient died from blood loss)

The popularity of leeching was proven by the sheer number of leeches that were imported throughout the years.  In the 1830s alone, France imported around 40 million leeches and physicians throughout Europe used hundreds of millions of them.

Today, the practice is reserved more for restoring blood flow to damaged veins after reattaching a limb or grating tissue.  The specific leech used medicinally, the European medicinal leech, actually provides healing properties itself; its saliva contains anesthetic properties and makes the bite painless while also dilating blood vessels in order to increase blood flow.  The saliva also includes an enzyme that inspires blood clotting.

During the past 100 years, leeches have been used sparingly, which begs the question: why is there an increased usage pattern in Russia?  What’s going on?

Since 2004, the practice of leeching has experienced a revival of sorts.  Numerous medical studies have come out in support of leeching and have discovered additional positive side effects of the process. 

However, the practice never stopped in Russia.  Along with Germany, Russian doctors recognized those benefits and thusly achieved the highest level in research on medicinal leeches.  Subsequently, the country is one of the largest producers of Hirudo medicinalis (medicinal leeches) in the world.

When President Putin took office, the goal was to double doctors’ salaries, increase life expectancy, and modernize an otherwise-outdated national healthcare.  However, those goals fell short.  Average income is well-below comparative jobs in the United States, oil prices collapsed, and sanctions and military spending distracted.  Most of Russia lives in very rural conditions, with doctors hard to find and money for treatments tight.  Affordable medicine is even harder to keep in stock, which inspired doctors to find alternate means of treatment.

Today, tourism is a big part of the Russian economy.  The architecture is unrivaled, with the prevailing style being the traditional baroque with the towers and bulbous roofs seen so often in books and movies.  The colors are strong; the buildings themselves well-maintained.  Cathedrals, government buildings, and museums are open for tours, and one could spend an entire visit on architecture alone.  But there are statues, monuments, the Moscow Metro, and numerous open-air markets that provide a glimpse into Moscow life.  And an increasingly large part of daily Moscow life is the use of leeches to treat everything from the most severe illness down to small inconveniences. 

More than 10 million leeches are used every year in Russian medicine, frequently as a low-cost replacement for blood thinners.  Instead of focusing on the sale of leeches themselves, Russia emphasizes the extraction of natural therapeutic chemicals from leech saliva and packaging it. 

In addition to cheaper medical options, the leech phenomenon has created numerous jobs at leech farms.  The leeches are raised in jars and fed until appropriate size and age to be used medicinally, and each of the millions of leeches must be raised, fed, and cared for on a strict schedule.  These farms exist all over Russia, from the city to the country.

The results of this work is astounding.  In 2016 alone, more than 29,000 vials of ointment, derived from those leeches, was sold by a Russian pharmaceutical company.  Other Russians prefer the old-fashioned method and frequent clinics to have nurses apply the leeches directly to their affected area.  All number of ailments are treated, from spine issues to urinary infections.  Still others purchase cosmetics and lotions made with leech extract; each promises to improve skin tone and remove dark circles from the undereye area.  Plastic surgeons use leeches to prevent scarring; dentists use them to reduce swelling on gums; gynecologists use them to treat STDs.

Some of these extracts are heading to the United States, at some point.  And with the increased trend of turning away from chemicals and to more natural treatments, the market is ripe.

Gennady Nikonov, Director at the International Center for Medicinal Leeches, agrees.

“There’s a general feeling around the world to get away from the synthetics of medicine and back to nature,” he said.

And with the affordable prices, ranging from $.30 in Russia to around $9 in the United States, the future is bright for these tiny healers.  Whether the affect is psychological or indeed medically sound, it seems that leeching is back and better than ever before.