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Sunday, 16 September, 2001, 23:02 GMT 00:02 UK
Leeches 'reduce arthritis pain'
Leeches
Leeches were once used widely in medicine
The ancient practice of using leeches in medicine may provide a way to treat people with the painful condition osteoarthritis.

Scientists have found the tiny parasitic creatures can bring welcome relief for people who have the condition in their knee.


I can't see many patients being particularly enthusiastic about it because of the 'yuck' factor

Jane Tadman
Use of leeches helped to ease both the pain and the inflammation associated with the condition.

Researchers from the Essen-Mitte Clinic in Germany focused on 16 patients, average age 68, who had had persistent knee pain for more than six months.

None had sustained knee injuries and all had x-ray evidence of osteoarthritis.

Exercises, physiotherapy, relaxation techniques and dietary changes were already part of their treatment programme.

Leech therapy was tried on 10 patients, eight of whom were women. Six others were given conventional treatment for pain.

Four leeches were applied to the painful knee and left in place for one hour and 20 minutes.

Pain measures

Pain measures were recorded three days before the start of the treatment and 28 days afterwards it had finished.

Leech treatment produced rapid pain relief after three days, with the greatest effects registered 24 hours after treatment. The effects were sustained four weeks later.

There were no side effects or infections, although patients described the initial leech bite as slightly painful.

The people who were treated with more conventional measures experienced no similar pain relief.

Leech therapy always used to be used to relieve pain and inflammation, but fell out of favour last century.

It seems likely that leeches help to relieve pain because their saliva contains various compounds that have an anaesthetic effect.

Jane Tadman of the Arthritis Research Campaign said more positive evidence from bigger studies would be needed before "leech therapy" could be taken seriously.

Placebo effect

She said: "Even if bigger studies than this one show that applying leeches can help reduce knee pain in osteoarthritis, I can't see many patients being particularly enthusiastic about it because of the 'yuck' factor.

"In this small study, the placebo effect may well be a factor; that is, if you think a treatment will do you good, you feel better.

"On the other hand some people swear that taking substances such as shark cartilage, Devil's Claw and coral calcium reduces their arthritic pain - and there is absolutely no scientific evidence to prove that any of these things work either.

"Leech treatment used to be common in the old days and is still used in ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of acute knee pain."

Ayurvedic medicine is based on using natural products to overcome illness.

The research is published in the journal Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases.

See also:

13 Mar 01 | Health
HRT 'may prevent osteoarthritis'
24 Sep 98 | Health
Leeches offer vein hope
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