Are Leeches Still Used in Modern Medicine?

In recent years, therapies with leeches (like the one shown here) and maggots have been approved by the FDA; they are classified as "medical devices."
In recent years, therapies with leeches (like the one shown here) and maggots have been approved by the FDA; they are classified as "medical devices."

Modern medicine is always making advances, but sometimes the old ways can come back to surprise us. For centuries, leeches were erroneously used to suck out blood from patients because it was believed that illness was caused by an excess of it. That theory was wrong, but not as wrong as once thought.

In recent years, the medical world has taken another look at leeches and realized that their knack for slurping up blood could come in handy. Because the pooling of blood can lead to swelling and complications, doctors have begun to use leeches to drain that excess from patients.

In that same vein -- no pun intended -- another icky little creature has found a role in the medical field: the maggot. Maggots, which are fly larvae, love to dine on dead tissue, yet they fortuitously avoid the healthy kind. That makes them ideal for ridding the body of infection. "They will totally dissolve and eradicate that dead tissue, cleaning up the wound so that it can go on to heal,” says Dr. Ronald Sherman, director of the BioTherapeutics, Education and Research Foundation in Irvine, California.

So far, leeches and maggots are the only helpful creepy-crawlies to earn medical approval, but who knows what other benefits might lurk among other tiny critters.

Leeches, maggots, and more:

  • Leeches aren't all small: The Amazon leech can grow to 18 inches (46cm) in length.

  • In Sardinia, maggots are used to enhance the flavor and texture of Pecorino cheese.

  • Venom from bees and ants has proven effective in treating the swollen joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis.

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    • In recent years, therapies with leeches (like the one shown here) and maggots have been approved by the FDA; they are classified as "medical devices."
      In recent years, therapies with leeches (like the one shown here) and maggots have been approved by the FDA; they are classified as "medical devices."