Medicinal Leech Therapy | Tampa General Hospital

Leech Therapy 

Leech therapy is a rarely used, yet valuable, tool for use in orthopaedic surgery—especially in the reattachment of fingers. 

You might think that thousands of years after leech therapy was prescribed for virtually every ailment a person had, modern medicine would have cast those bloodsucking creatures aside long ago. Believe it or not, they’re still occasionally used in medicine to this day. Leeches are excellent at promoting circulation of blood in a specific area, which can be invaluable when a patient is experiencing clotting and venous congestion after a procedure. 

When Leech Therapy Is Used 

In orthopaedic medicine, leeches can play an important role when a patient is recovering from the replantation of digits (especially fingers). When reattached arteries pump too much blood into the digit and the veins can’t circulate it away to the rest of the body quickly enough, blood can pool in the area. This causes swelling and can potentially kill the newly reattached finger. A leech, attached to the tip of the affected finger, will help by sucking the unwanted blood out, which in turn restores proper blood flow in the digit. Leech therapy is also used after the attachment of skin flaps, as that process also involves tissue that could become venously congested if there is a problem with the reattached blood vessels. 

Leech saliva contains several substances that patients benefit from. It has a local vasodilator, which improves blood supply, and natural anticoagulants called hirudin and calin that prevent clots. 

What to Expect 

Leech therapy is typically not painful, as leech saliva also contains a natural local anesthetic. They will feed for a period of 15 minutes to an hour before falling off, and new leeches will be attached periodically over the course of several days until their assistance is no longer needed for proper circulation. 

There is a risk of infection associated with leech therapy, as the creatures use gut bacteria to digest blood, so many patients are given antibiotics to help prevent infection from developing. 


Leech therapy is generally effective, though it is also primarily used when other options fail to regulate blood flow. When a patient’s situation calls for leech therapy, Tampa General Hospital’s Orthopaedic Institute can make good use of this procedure and achieve the desired outcomes for patients.