Natural Phlebotomy – the Medical Leech

Natural Phlebotomy – the Medical Leech

A natural phlebotomy trend emigrated from France to the United States in the form of the medical leech. After several decades of wild popularity, it was eventually discarded. Even its most loyal proponents distanced themselves. Many years later, among forward-thinking intelligentsia, it began to make a slow comeback.

This isn’t the story of a Chanel dress or a Sartre novel—it actually has more to do with phlebotomy than philosophy. The hero is a plump, wriggly invertebrate.


The leech.

natural phlebotomy medical leech


In the earliest schools of medicine, leeches were used as a popular treatment method. Practitioners believed that patients’ blood occasionally needed to be released, and the small bloodsuckers were ideal for doing it. They made painless incisions, rarely caused infections and left manageable bleeding even after they were removed: perfect phlebotomy. Over the years leeches became so synonymous with doctors that the two words were interchangeable—well, not really, but you get the point that’s being driven home.

After enjoying steady popularity through the Dark Ages, leeching reached a climax in France around 1800.  Prescribed for everything from cancer to stomachaches, French doctors attached almost 60 leeches a year. As Franco-American relations strengthened, Yankees began treating patients with leeches in similar quantities.

But times changed. Medical schools began to doubt whether leeches actually helped patients. Phlebotomy became a disciplined science with little room for tradition-based practices. Doctors that continued to use leeches were discredited and the practice died completely for almost 200 years.

In the 1980’s doctors all over the United States began reconsidering leeches. Not for phlebotomy, but plastic surgery. When limbs are re-attached, blood can build up in weakened arteries.

Unless it’s released, the limb will die. After trying hundreds of synthetic anti-coagulants without success, doctors finally turned back to leeches. They worked. The invertebrates release a powerful anti-coagulant that naturally prompts blood to flow and circulate freely.

In 2004, the FDA classified leeches as the world’s first live medical devices. They continue to gain traction in teaching hospitals and medical schools around the country. Truthfully, schools would have scoffed at the idea 50 years ago.

Are patients disgusted by the idea of a slimy creature sucking their blood? Sometimes. But most agree that feeding a leech is better than losing a limb—the other option in some cases. They may be slimy and nasty, but leeches have been used longer than virtually any other medical device.