By Karla Gale
LONDON (Reuters Health) – Application of leeches to a painful, osteoarthritic knee can provide significant pain relief that lasts for at least 28 days, investigators report in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases for October.
Dr. Gustav Dobos, of Essen-Mite Clinic in Germany, and associates recruited 16 patients who had persistent knee pain for more than 6 months and radiographic evidence of osteoarthritis. Ten patients chose to be treated one time with leeches, while six declined and were treated conventionally. The experimental treatment consisted of 4 leeches placed around the knee joint for an average of 80 minutes. No serious adverse effects or local infections were observed.
Dr. Dobos and his associates report that pain, as assessed by an 11-point visual analogue scale (VAS), was significantly reduced between baseline and day 6 after treatment. This amounted to a VAS score change from 7.4 to 2.4 among those treated with leeches, and from 6.3 to 5.2 among control subjects during the same time period. At 28 days, the patients treated with leeches reported a VAS score of 1.0, whereas controls reported a score of 4.8.
However, Dr. Ronald L. Calabrese, a professor of biology at Emory University in Atlanta, who specializes in the study of leeches, is very skeptical about the findings.
He acknowledged that there may be proteins in leech saliva that reduce swelling or inflammation. Also, "it could very well be that something about a slow ooze of blood helps, but I can't imagine what that would be," he told Reuters Health.
"Leeches, unlike other blood suckers, don't seem to be vectors for diseases, so even if this treatment is total quackery, it's probably harmless," he said.
Ann Rheum Dis 2001;60:986.