Leeches are segmented worms that belong to the phylum Annelida and comprise the subclass
Class (biology)
In biological classification, class is* a taxonomic rank. Other well-known ranks are life, domain, kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, and species, with class fitting between phylum and order...

 Hirudinea. Like other oligochaetes
Oligochaeta is a subclass of animals in the biological phylum Annelida, which is made up of many types of aquatic and terrestrial worms, and this includes all of the various earthworms...

 such as earthworms, leeches share a clitellum
The clitellum is a thickened glandular section of the body wall in earthworms and leeches, that secretes a viscid sac in which the eggs are deposited...

 and are hermaphrodites. Nevertheless, they differ from other oligochaetes in significant ways. For example, leeches do not have bristles and the external segmentation of their bodies does not correspond with the internal segmentation of their organs.
Leeches are segmented worms that belong to the phylum Annelida and comprise the subclass
Class (biology)
In biological classification, class is* a taxonomic rank. Other well-known ranks are life, domain, kingdom, phylum, order, family, genus, and species, with class fitting between phylum and order...

 Hirudinea. Like other oligochaetes
Oligochaeta is a subclass of animals in the biological phylum Annelida, which is made up of many types of aquatic and terrestrial worms, and this includes all of the various earthworms...

 such as earthworms, leeches share a clitellum
The clitellum is a thickened glandular section of the body wall in earthworms and leeches, that secretes a viscid sac in which the eggs are deposited...

 and are hermaphrodites. Nevertheless, they differ from other oligochaetes in significant ways. For example, leeches do not have bristles and the external segmentation of their bodies does not correspond with the internal segmentation of their organs. Their bodies are much more solid as the spaces in their coelom
The coelom is a fluid-filled cavity formed within the mesoderm. Coeloms developed in triploblasts but were subsequently lost in several lineages. Loss of coelom is correlated with reduction in body size...

 are dense with connective tissues. They also have two suckers, one at each end.

The majority of leeches live in freshwater environments, while some species can be found in terrestrial and marine environments, as well. Most leeches are hematophagous, as they are predominantly blood suckers that feed on blood from vertebrate and invertebrate animals.

Leeches, such as the Hirudo medicinalis, have been historically used in medicine to remove blood from patients. The practice of leeching can be traced to ancient India and Greece, and continued well into the 18th and 19th centuries in both Europe and North America. In modern times, the practice of leeching is much rarer and has been replaced by other contemporary uses of leeches, such as the reattachment of body parts and reconstructive and plastic surgeries and in treating osteoarthritis in Germany,

Taxonomy and systematics

Leeches are presumed to have evolved from certain Oligochaeta
Oligochaeta is a subclass of animals in the biological phylum Annelida, which is made up of many types of aquatic and terrestrial worms, and this includes all of the various earthworms...

, most of which feed on detritus
Detritus is a biological term used to describe dead or waste organic material.Detritus may also refer to:* Detritus , a geological term used to describe the particles of rock produced by weathering...

. However, some species in the Lumbriculidae
The Lumbriculidae are a family of microdrile oligochaetes common in fresh-water environments, including streams, lakes, marshes, wells and ground-water. They should not be confused with the earthworm family Lumbricidae. Many species and even genera are highly endemic, mainly in Siberia and the...

 are predatory and have similar adaptations as found in leeches. As a consequence, the systematics
Biological systematics is the study of the diversification of terrestrial life, both past and present, and the relationships among living things through time. Relationships are visualized as evolutionary trees...

 and taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

 of leeches is in need of review. While leeches form a clade
A clade is a group consisting of a species and all its descendants. In the terms of biological systematics, a clade is a single "branch" on the "tree of life". The idea that such a "natural group" of organisms should be grouped together and given a taxonomic name is central to biological...

, the remaining oligochaetes are not their sister taxon, but in a diverse paraphyletic group containing some lineages that are closely related to leeches, and others that are far more distant.

There is some dispute as to whether Hirudinea should be a class itself, or a subclass of the Clitellata
Clitellata is a class of Annelid worms, characterized by having a clitellum - the 'collar' that forms a reproductive cocoon during part of their life cycle. The clitellates comprise around 8,000 species...

. The resolution mainly depends on the eventual fate of the oligochaetes, which as noted above, do not form a natural group as traditionally circumscribed. Another possibility would be to include the leeches in the taxon
|thumb|270px|[[African elephants]] form a widely-accepted taxon, the [[genus]] LoxodontaA taxon is a group of organisms, which a taxonomist adjudges to be a unit. Usually a taxon is given a name and a rank, although neither is a requirement...

 Oligochaeta, which would then be ranked as a class and contain most of the clitellates. The Branchiobdellida are leechlike clitellates that were formerly included in the Hirudinea, but are just really close relatives.

The more primitive Acanthobdellidea are often included with the leeches, but some authors treat them as a separate clitellate group. True leeches of the infraclass Euhirudinea
Euhirudinea, the true leeches, are an infraclass of the Hirudinea. These clitellate annelids are of somewhat unclear relationships; namely the relationships of Hirudinea with oligochaetes are in need of revision...

 have both anterior and posterior suckers. They are divided into two groups: Arhynchobdellida and Rhynchobdellida
  • Rhynchobdellida
    Rhynchobdellida, the jawless leeches, are classified as an order of the Hirudinea. But leech taxonomy and systematics will eventually be revised in due time, not because there are many uncertainties about their phylogeny, but because the major clades of clitellate annelids – and whether the...

    ) are "jawless" leeches, armed with a muscular, straw-like proboscis puncturing organ in a retractable sheath. The Rhynchobdellae consist of two families:
    • Glossiphoniidae
      Glossiphoniidae are the family called freshwater jawless leeches or glossiphoniids. They are one of the main groups of Rhynchobdellida, true leeches with a proboscis. These leeches are generally flattened, and have a poorly defined anterior sucker...

       are flattened leeches with a poorly defined anterior sucker.
    • Piscicolida have cylindrical bodies and a usually well-marked, bell-shaped, anterior sucker. The Glossiphoniidae live in fresh-water habitats; the Pisciolidae are found in seawater habitats.

  • Arhynchobdellida
    The proboscisless leeches, Arhynchobdellida, are classified as an order of the Hirudinea. But leech taxonomy and systematics will eventually be revised in due time, not because there are many uncertainties about their phylogeny, but because the major clades of clitellate annelids - and whether the...

     lack a proboscis and may or may not have jaws armed with teeth. Arhynchobellids are divided into two orders:
    • Gnathobdela: In this order of "jawed" leeches, armed with teeth, is found the quintessential leech: the European medical (bloodsucking) leech, Hirudo medicinalis. It has a tripartite jaw filled with hundreds of tiny sharp teeth. The incision mark left on the skin by the European medical leech is an inverted Y inside a circle. Its North American counterpart is Macrobdela decora, a much less efficient medical leech. Within this order, the family Hirudidae is characterized by aquatic leeches and the family Haemadipsidae by terrestrial leeches. In the latter are Haemadipsa sylvestris, the Indian leech and Haemadipsa zeylanica (yamabiru), the Japanese mountain or land leech.
    • Pharyngobdella: These so-called worm-leeches consist of freshwater or amphibious leeches that have lost the ability to penetrate a host's tissue and suck blood. They are carnivorous and equipped with a relatively large, toothless, mouth to ingest worms or insect larvae, which are swallowed whole.
      The Pharyngobdella have six to eight pairs of eyes, as compared with five pairs in Gnathobdelliform leeches, and include three related families. The Erpobdellidae are some species from freshwater habitats.

Anatomy and physiology

Like other annelids, the leech is a segmented animal. But, unlike other annelids, there is no correspondence between the external segmentation of a leech's body surface with the segmentation
Segmentation (biology)
Segmentation in biology refers to either a type of gastrointestinal motility or the division of some animal and plant body plans into a series of repetitive segments. This article will focus on the segmentation of animal body plans, specifically using the examples of the phyla Arthropoda,...

 of its internal organs. The body surface of the animal can be divided into 102 annuli
Annulus (zoology)
In zoology, an annulus is an external circular ring. Annuli are commonly found in segmented animals such as earthworms and leeches. The bodies of these annelids are externally marked by annuli that are arranged in series with each other....

, whereas its internal structures are divided into 32 segments. Of the 32 segments within the body, the first four anterior segments are designated as head segments, which include an anterior brain and sucker. This is followed by 21 midbody segments, which include 21 neuronal ganglia, two reproductive organs, and 9 pairs of testes. Finally, the last seven segments are fused to form the animal's tail sucker, as well as its posterior brain.

Reproduction and development

Leeches are hermaphrodite
In biology, a hermaphrodite is an organism that has reproductive organs normally associated with both male and female sexes.Many taxonomic groups of animals do not have separate sexes. In these groups, hermaphroditism is a normal condition, enabling a form of sexual reproduction in which both...

s, meaning each has both female and male reproductive organs
Sex organ
A sex organ, or primary sexual characteristic, as narrowly defined, is any of the anatomical parts of the body which are involved in sexual reproduction and constitute the reproductive system in a complex organism; flowers are the reproductive organs of flowering plants, cones are the reproductive...

The ovary is an ovum-producing reproductive organ, often found in pairs as part of the vertebrate female reproductive system. Ovaries in anatomically female individuals are analogous to testes in anatomically male individuals, in that they are both gonads and endocrine glands.-Human anatomy:Ovaries...

 and testes
The testicle is the male gonad in animals. Like the ovaries to which they are homologous, testes are components of both the reproductive system and the endocrine system...

, respectively). Leeches reproduce by reciprocal fertilization, and sperm transfer occurs during copulation. Similar to the earthworms, leeches also use a clitellum to hold their eggs and secrete the cocoon.

During reproduction, leeches use hyperdermic injection of their sperm. They use a spermatophore
A spermatophore or sperm ampulla is a capsule or mass created by males of various animal species, containing spermatozoa and transferred in entirety to the female's ovipore during copulation...

, which is a structure containing the sperm. Once next to each nother, leeches will line up with one's anterior side opposite the other's posterior. The leech then shoots the spermatophore into the clitellur region of the opposing leech, where its sperm will make its way to the female reproductive parts.

The embryonic development of the leech occurs as a series of stages. During stage 1, the first cleavage
Cleavage (embryo)
In embryology, cleavage is the division of cells in the early embryo. The zygotes of many species undergo rapid cell cycles with no significant growth, producing a cluster of cells the same size as the original zygote. The different cells derived from cleavage are called blastomeres and form a...

 occurs, which gives rise to an AB and a CD blastomere
A blastomere is a type of cell produced by division of the egg after fertilization.- References :* "Blastomere." Stedman's Medical Dictionary, 27th ed. . ISBN 0-683-40007-X...

, and is in the interphase
Interphase is the phase of the cell cycle in which the cell spends the majority of its time and performs the majority of its purposes including preparation for cell division. In preparation for cell division, it increases its size and makes a copy of its DNA...

 of this cell division when a yolk-free cytoplasm called teloplasm is formed. The teloplasm is known to be a determinant for the specification of the D cell fate. In stage 3, during the second cleavage, an unequal division occurs in the CD blastomere. As a consequence, it creates a large D cell on the left and a smaller C cell to the right. This unequal division process is dependent on actinomycin
The actinomycins are a class of polypeptide antibiotics isolated from soil bacteria of the genus Streptomyces, of which the most significant is actinomycin D. It was the first antibiotic isolated by Selman Waksman and his co-worker H. B. Woodruff in 1940.-Mechanism:Actinomycin D is primarily used...

, and by the end of stage 3 the AB cell divides. On stage 4 of development, the micromeres and teloblast
A teloblast is a large cell in the embryos of clitellate annelids which asymmetrically divide to form many smaller cells known as blast cells. These blast cells further proliferate and differentiate to form the segmental tissues of the annelid...

 stem cells are formed and subsequently, the D quadrant divides to form the DM and the DNOPQ teloblast precursor cells. By the end stage 6, the zygote contains a set of 25 micromeres, 3 macromeres (A, B and C) and 10 teloblasts derived from the D quadrant.

The teloblasts are pairs of five different types (M, N, O, P, and Q) of embryonic stem cells that form segmented columns of cells (germinal band) in the surface of the embryo. The M-derived cells make mesoderm and some small set of neurons, N results in neural tissues and some ventral ectoderm, Q contributes to the dorsal ectoderm
The "ectoderm" is one of the three primary germ cell layers in the very early embryo. The other two layers are the mesoderm and endoderm , with the ectoderm as the most exterior layer...

 and O and P in the leech are equipotent cells (same developmental potential) that produce lateral ectoderm; however the difference between the two of them is that P creates bigger batches of dorsolateral epidermis than O. The sludgeworm Tubifex
Tubifex is a cosmopolitan genus of tubificid Annelids that inhabit the sediments of lakes, rivers and occasionally sewer lines. There are over ten known species of Tubifex, but the number is not certain, as the species are not easily distinguishable from each other.-Food and feeding:Tubifex worms...

, unlike the leech, specifies the O and P lineages early in development and therefore, these two cells are not equipotent. Each segment of the body of the leech is generated from one M, O, P cell types and two N and two Q cells types.

The ectoderm and mesoderm
In all bilaterian animals, the mesoderm is one of the three primary germ cell layers in the very early embryo. The other two layers are the ectoderm and endoderm , with the mesoderm as the middle layer between them.The mesoderm forms mesenchyme , mesothelium, non-epithelial blood corpuscles and...

 of the body trunk are exclusively derived from the teloblast cells in a region called the posterior progress zone. The head of the leech that comes from an unsegmented region, is formed by the first set of micromeres derived from A, B, C and D cells, keeping the bilateral symmetry between the AD and BC cells.


For leeches, the digestive system starts with the jaw, which is located ventrally on the anterior side of the body. It is attached to the pharynx
The human pharynx is the part of the throat situated immediately posterior to the mouth and nasal cavity, and anterior to the esophagus and larynx. The human pharynx is conventionally divided into three sections: the nasopharynx , the oropharynx , and the laryngopharynx...

, then the esophagus, extending to the crop
Crop (anatomy)
A crop is a thin-walled expanded portion of the alimentary tract used for the storage of food prior to digestion that is found in many animals, including gastropods, earthworms, leeches, insects, birds, and even some dinosaurs.- Bees :Cropping is used by bees to temporarily store nectar of flowers...

, then to the gizzard, which leads to the intestinum, where it ends at the posterior sucker. The crop is a type of stomach that works like an expandable storage compartment. The crop allows a leech to store blood up to five times its body size, and, because the leech produces an anticoagulant, the stored blood remains in a liquid state; because of this ability to hold blood without the blood decaying, due to bacteria living inside the crop, medicinal leech
Medicinal leech
Medicinal leeches are any of several species of leeches, but most commonly Hirudo medicinalis, the European medicinal leech.Other Hirudo species sometimes used as medicinal leeches include Hirudo orientalis, Hirudo troctina, and Hirudo verbana...

es need to feed only twice a year.

The body of predatory leeches are similar, though some may also have a protrusible proboscis
A proboscis is an elongated appendage from the head of an animal, either a vertebrate or an invertebrate. In simpler terms, a proboscis is the straw-like mouth found in several varieties of species.-Etymology:...

, which is retracted in their mouths. Such leeches are often ambush predator
Ambush predator
Ambush predators or sit-and-wait predators are carnivorous animals that capture prey by stealth or cunning, not by speed or necessarily by strength. These organisms usually hide motionless and wait for prey to come within striking distance. They are often camouflaged, and may be solitary...

s, which lie in wait, and strike their prey using their probosces in a spear-like fashion.

Bacteria in the gut were long thought to carry on digestion
Digestion is the mechanical and chemical breakdown of food into smaller components that are more easily absorbed into a blood stream, for instance. Digestion is a form of catabolism: a breakdown of large food molecules to smaller ones....

 for the leech, instead of endogenous enzymes that are very low or absent in the intestine. As discovered relatively recently, all leech species studied, do produce endogenous intestinal exopeptidase
An exopeptidase is an enzyme produced in the pancreas that catalyses the removal of an amino acid from the end of a polypeptide chain. Exopeptidase cleaves the end of a polypeptide chain....

s, which can unlink free terminal-end amino acid
Amino acid
Amino acids are molecules containing an amine group, a carboxylic acid group and a side-chain that varies between different amino acids. The key elements of an amino acid are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen...

s, one monomer at a time, from a gradually unwinding and degrading protein polymer. However, unzipping of the protein can start from either the amino (tail) or carboxyl (head) terminal-end of the protein molecule
Proteins are biochemical compounds consisting of one or more polypeptides typically folded into a globular or fibrous form, facilitating a biological function. A polypeptide is a single linear polymer chain of amino acids bonded together by peptide bonds between the carboxyl and amino groups of...

. The leech exopeptidases (arylamidases), possibly aided by proteases from endosymbiotic bacteria in the intestine, start from the tail or amino end, slowly but progressively removing many hundreds of individual terminal amino acids for resynthesis into proteins that constitute the leech. Since leeches lack endopeptidase
Endopeptidase or endoproteinase are proteolytic peptidases that break peptide bonds of nonterminal amino acids , in contrast to exopeptidases, which break peptide bonds from their end-pieces. For this reason, endopeptidases cannot break down peptides into monomers, while exopeptidases can break...

s, the mechanism of protein digestion cannot follow the same sequence as it would in all other animals in which exopeptidases act sequentially on peptides produced by the action of endopeptidases. Exopeptidases are especially prominent in the common North American worm-leech Erpobdella punctata. This evolutionary choice of exopeptic digestion in Hirudinea distinguishes these carnivorous clitellates from Oligochaeta.

Deficiency of digestive enzyme
Digestive enzyme
'Digestive enzymes' are enzymes that break down polymeric macromolecules into their smaller building blocks, in order to facilitate their absorption by the body. Digestive enzymes are found in the digestive tract of animals where they aid in the digestion of food as well as inside the cells,...

s (except exopeptidases), but, more importantly, deficiency of vitamins, B complex for example, in leeches is compensated for by enzymes and vitamins produced by endosymbiotic microflora. In Hirudo medicinalis, these supplementary factors are produced by an obligatory symbiotic relationship
Symbiosis is close and often long-term interaction between different biological species. In 1877 Bennett used the word symbiosis to describe the mutualistic relationship in lichens...

 with two bacterial species, Aeromonas veronii and a still-uncharacterized Rikenella species. Nonbloodsucking leeches, such as Erpobdella punctata, are host to three bacterial symbionts, Pseudomonas
Pseudomonas is a genus of gammaproteobacteria, belonging to the family Pseudomonadaceae containing 191 validly described species.Recently, 16S rRNA sequence analysis has redefined the taxonomy of many bacterial species. As a result, the genus Pseudomonas includes strains formerly classified in the...

, Aeromonas
Aeromonas is a gram-negative, facultative anaerobic rod that morphologically resembles members of the family Enterobacteriaceae. Fourteen species of Aeromonas have been described, most of which have been associated with human diseases. The most important pathogens are A. hydrophila, A. caviae, and...

, and Klebsiella
Klebsiella is a genus of non-motile, Gram-negative, oxidase-negative, rod-shaped bacteria with a prominent polysaccharide-based capsule. It is named after the German microbiologist Edwin Klebs...

spp. (a slime producer). The bacteria are passed from parent to offspring in the cocoon as it is formed.


Leeches are able to display a variety of behaviors that allow them to explore their environments and feed on their hosts. Exploratory behavior includes head movements and body waving.


Most leeches do not feed on human blood, but instead prey on small invertebrate
An invertebrate is an animal without a backbone. The group includes 97% of all animal species – all animals except those in the chordate subphylum Vertebrata .Invertebrates form a paraphyletic group...

s, which they eat whole. To feed on their hosts, leeches use their anterior suckers to connect to hosts for feeding, and also release an anesthetic to prevent the hosts from feeling them. Once attached, leeches use a combination of mucus and suction to stay attached and secrete an anticoagulant
An anticoagulant is a substance that prevents coagulation of blood. A group of pharmaceuticals called anticoagulants can be used in vivo as a medication for thrombotic disorders. Some anticoagulants are used in medical equipment, such as test tubes, blood transfusion bags, and renal dialysis...

 enzyme, hirudin
Hirudin is a naturally occurring peptide in the salivary glands of medicinal leeches that has a blood anticoagulant property...

, into the hosts' blood stream
Blood is a specialized bodily fluid in animals that delivers necessary substances such as nutrients and oxygen to the cells and transports metabolic waste products away from those same cells....

s. Though certain species of leeches feed on blood, not all species can bite; 90% of them feed solely on decomposing bodies and open wounds of amphibians, reptiles, waterfowl, fish, and mammals (including, but not limited to, humans). A leech attaches itself when it bites, and it will stay attached until it becomes full, at which point it falls off to digest. Due to the hirudin that leeches secrete, bites may bleed more than a normal wound after the leech is removed. The effect of the anticoagulant will wear off several hours after the leech is removed and the wound is cleaned.

Leeches normally carry parasites in their digestive tract
Gastrointestinal tract
The human gastrointestinal tract refers to the stomach and intestine, and sometimes to all the structures from the mouth to the anus. ....

s, which cannot survive in humans and do not pose a threat. However, bacteria, viruses, and parasites from previous blood sources can survive within a leech for months, but only a few cases of leeches transmitting pathogens to humans have been reported. A study found both HIV
Human immunodeficiency virus is a lentivirus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome , a condition in humans in which progressive failure of the immune system allows life-threatening opportunistic infections and cancers to thrive...

 and hepatitis B
Hepatitis is a medical condition defined by the inflammation of the liver and characterized by the presence of inflammatory cells in the tissue of the organ. The name is from the Greek hepar , the root being hepat- , meaning liver, and suffix -itis, meaning "inflammation"...

 in African leeches from Cameroon
Cameroon, officially the Republic of Cameroon , is a country in west Central Africa. It is bordered by Nigeria to the west; Chad to the northeast; the Central African Republic to the east; and Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo to the south. Cameroon's coastline lies on the...


Removal and treatment

One recommended method of removal is using a fingernail or other flat, blunt object to break the seal of the oral sucker at the anterior end of the leech, repeating with the posterior end, then flicking the leech away. As the fingernail is pushed along the person's skin against the leech, the suction of the sucker's seal is broken, at which point the leech will detach its jaws.

Common, but medically inadvisable, techniques to remove a leech are to apply a flame, a lit cigarette, salt, soap, or a chemical such as alcohol, vinegar, lemon juice, insect repellent, heat rub
Heat rub
Heat rub is the name for a variety of products intended to relieve the pain of fibrositis, lumbago and muscular aches and strains. They are so named because they produce a feeling of warmth within the muscle of the area they are applied to, typically acting as rubefacients via a counterirritant...

, or certain carbonated drinks. These will cause the leech to quickly detach; however, it will also regurgitate its stomach contents into the wound. The vomit may carry disease, and thus increase the risk of infection.

An externally attached leech will detach and fall off on its own when it is satiated on blood, which may be anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours or more. After feeding, the leech will detach and depart. Internal attachments, such as inside the nasal passage or vaginal attachments, are more likely to require medical intervention.

After removal or detachment, the wound should be cleaned with soap and water, and bandaged. Bleeding may continue for some time, due to the leech's hirudin. Bleeding time will vary, with location, from a few hours to three days. This is a function of the hirudin and other compounds that reduce the surface tension of the blood. Anticlotting medications also affect the bleeding time. Applying pressure can reduce bleeding, although blood loss from a single bite is not dangerous. The wound normally itches as it heals, but should not be scratched, as this may complicate healing and introduce other infections. An antihistamine
An H1 antagonist is a histamine antagonist of the H1 receptor that serves to reduce or eliminate effects mediated by histamine, an endogenous chemical mediator released during allergic reactions...

 can reduce itching, and applying a cold pack can reduce pain or swelling.

Some people suffer severe allergic or anaphylactic reactions
Anaphylaxis is defined as "a serious allergic reaction that is rapid in onset and may cause death". It typically results in a number of symptoms including throat swelling, an itchy rash, and low blood pressure...

 from leech bites and require urgent medical care. Symptoms include red blotches or an itchy rash over the body, swelling around the lips or eyes, feeling faint or dizzy, and difficulty breathing.

Medicinal use of leeches

The European medical leech Hirudo medicinalis and some congener
Congener has several different meanings depending on the field in which it is used. Colloquially, it is used to mean a person or thing like another, in character or action.-Biology:In biology, congeners are organisms within the same genus...

s, as well as some other species
In biology, a species is one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are...

, have been used for clinical bloodletting
Bloodletting is the withdrawal of often little quantities of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness and disease. Bloodletting was based on an ancient system of medicine in which blood and other bodily fluid were considered to be "humors" the proper balance of which maintained health...

 for thousands of years. The use of leeches in medicine dates as far back as 2,500 years ago, when they were used for bloodletting in ancient India. Leech therapy is explained in ancient Ayurvedic
Ayurveda or ayurvedic medicine is a system of traditional medicine native to India and a form of alternative medicine. In Sanskrit, words , meaning "longevity", and , meaning "knowledge" or "science". The earliest literature on Indian medical practice appeared during the Vedic period in India,...

 texts. Many ancient civilizations practiced bloodletting, including Indian and Greek civilizations. In ancient Greek history, bloodletting was practiced according to the humoral theory, which proposed that, when the four humors, blood, phlegm, black and yellow bile in the human body were in balance, good health was guaranteed. An imbalance in the proportions of these humors was believed to be the cause of ill health. Records of this theory were found in the Greek philosopher Hippocrates' collection in the fifth century BC. Bloodletting using leeches was one method used by physicians to balance the humors and to rid the body of the plethora.

The use of leeches in modern medicine made its comeback in the 1980s after years of decline, with the advent of microsurgeries, such as plastic and reconstructive surgeries. In operations such as these, problematic venous congestion can arise due to inefficient venous drainage. Sometimes, because of the technical difficulties in forming an anastomosis
An anastomosis is the reconnection of two streams that previously branched out, such as blood vessels or leaf veins. The term is used in medicine, biology, mycology and geology....

 of a vein
In the circulatory system, veins are blood vessels that carry blood towards the heart. Most veins carry deoxygenated blood from the tissues back to the heart; exceptions are the pulmonary and umbilical veins, both of which carry oxygenated blood to the heart...

, no attempt is made to reattach a venous supply to a flap at all. This condition is known as venous insufficiency. If this congestion is not cleared up quickly, the blood will clot, arteries that bring the tissues their necessary nourishment will become plugged, and the tissues will die. To prevent this, leeches are applied to a congested flap, and a certain amount of excess blood is consumed before the leech falls away. The wound will also continue to bleed for a while due to the anticoagulant hirudin in the leeches' saliva. The combined effect is to reduce the swelling in the tissues and to promote healing by allowing fresh, oxygenated blood to reach the area.

The active anticoagulant component of leech saliva is a small protein, hirudin
Hirudin is a naturally occurring peptide in the salivary glands of medicinal leeches that has a blood anticoagulant property...

. Discovery and isolation of this protein led to a method of producing it by recombinant
Recombinant may refer to:* A recombinant organism - an organism that contains a different combination of alleles from either of its parents.* Recombinant DNA - a form of artificial DNA* Recombinant virus - a virus formed by recombining genetic material...

 technology. Recombinant hirudin is available to physicians as an intravenous anticoagulant preparation for injection, particularly useful for patients who are allergic to or cannot tolerate heparin
Heparin , also known as unfractionated heparin, a highly sulfated glycosaminoglycan, is widely used as an injectable anticoagulant, and has the highest negative charge density of any known biological molecule...


External links

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