Leeches are definitely revolting, but can they help migraines?

Leeches are not pleasant to look at, but they have been used for medicinal purposes for hundreds of years. Growing up in the Ukraine in the 1960s I remember (this is hard to forget) seeing big jars with leeches in a corner pharmacy. Patients would bring in a prescription from the doctor for 4 leeches to be applied daily. The leeches would be placed into a small jar and taken home by the patient to treat swelling, high blood pressure and I don’t know what else. Leeches went out of fashion because of the advances in medicine and just because they are just disgusting. They are being used again in the US for removing extra blood around the scars after cosmetic surgery, arthritic pains, shingles, and other conditions.

British writer Emma Parker Bowles was recently in the news writing about how leeches cured her migraines. She decided on this unusual treatment because her headaches were so severe. She says, “the word headache doesn’t even begin to describe them”. She goes on with a vivid description, “Migraines are miserable with bells on – actually, the idea of listening to the sound of a bell with a migraine brings me out in a sweat. When I am suffering with one, I can’t even stand the sound of my sheets rustling. Apart from the intense throbbing, all-encompassing pain in my head, I also feel extremely nauseous and sensitive to light. I feel as if I am a vampire – a small sliver of daylight and POOF: I will spontaneously combust”.

Leeches do not hurt when they are applied because they first release a numbing substance, which along with a blood thinner and other chemicals released by the leech may be responsible for their beneficial effect. They do not have any known serious side effects. Leeches are used once and then destroyed to avoid transmitting diseases, although there is no reason why a person could not reuse them herself or himself. Several companies sell leeches to the public with instructions on how to use them. Although leeches have been used for the treatment of migraines for many years, there have been no good clinical trials or even reports of large series of cases, but someone should definitely undertake this research. Me? I am not sure I am ready.

Art credit: JulieMauskop.com

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