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Leeches Take the Bite Out of Arthritis Pain

Fri Jun 14, 2002

By Richard Woodman

LONDON (Reuters Health) - A cheap, natural therapy for arthritis was recommended by scientists on Friday--hirudo medicinalis, or more simply, leeches.

As Western drugmakers waxed lyrical about their latest blockbusters at a meeting in Stockholm, the Russian team told how they had successfully used the blood-sucking creatures to treat both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

"We found in all patients clinical improvement after leeches therapy," said I. G. Salikhov and colleagues from Kazan State Medical University, Kazan, Russia.

Billions of dollars are spent every year on conventional drug therapies--so observers noted that leech therapy could be welcomed by hard-pressed health services--if not by every patient.

The researchers evaluated the therapy in 105 patients with periarticular symptoms of rheumatoid and osteoarthritis--a complication that affects muscular tissue and impairs quality of life.

"We did hirudo therapy from one to five times to each patient, using leeches on the area of painful trigger zones in the muscles surrounding the joints," they noted in an abstract presented at the annual European Congress of Rheumatology.

The investigators said clinical improvements included decrease or disappearance of muscle pain and a reduction in early morning stiffness. "Also," they noted, "the range of movements in joints increased."

In case anyone should doubt the findings, the team said laboratory tests showed blood changes including a reduction in an inflammation-related compound known as C-reactive protein, and a change in blood clotting factors, including a longer coagulation time.

And unlike the risks linked to swallowing pills, "no significant side effects after treatment with leeches were found," the researchers stated.

"The use of leeches for local therapy (in this particular syndrome) is effective and safe," Salikhov and colleagues conclude.

Leeches remove blood through a tiny incision in their teeth. The saliva of leeches contains analgesic and anaesthetic compounds, as well as hirudin, an anti-blood clotting agent.

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