How Are Medical Leeches Used in Plastic Surgery?

  1. Leech Therapy

    • Leeches are worm-like organisms approximately two to three inches in length. They have tiny teeth that suction onto an area and suck blood. They are used in medical facilities to increase circulation, improve blood flow and speed healing. They remove pooled, unmoving blood that threatens tissue survival. Technically, the U.S. Federal Drug Administration classifies leeches as medical devices because they cause blood to drain that otherwise would remain stagnant and complicate surgeries. Creating a route to pool blood can be difficult to impossible for surgeons, depending on the injury, type of procedure or incision. Movement of blood causes the rest of the body's blood to rush to the area and eventually take over, ensuring the tissue's survival. Leeches are generally used only when other methods are exhausted. Two to three leeches are applied per patient and they fall off after about 40 minutes. They produce a natural blood thinner and anti-coagulant called hirudin that continues draining blood even after the leech has been removed.

    Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery

    • In plastic and reconstructive surgery, leeches are particularly helpful in attaching severed limbs and improving circulation in cut flaps of flesh. Blood vessels found in amputations are often so badly slashed that circulation is hard to restart. Leeches stimulate blood flow and get it moving again, increasing the chances that the appendage will be able to be reattached and functional. During plastic surgery, if the doctor sees that tissue is dying due to the operation, leeches can reverse the process and save flaps with compromised circulation. During breast reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy, leeches are used to remove venous blood that can develop in the abdomen. In cases like this and other types of plastic surgeries, leech therapy is a viable alternative because surgery to remove stopped blood can have more risks than using leeches to remove it.

    Safety

    • Leeches used in leech therapy are not harvested from the wild. They are raised in controlled environments that are strictly regulated by the government. Though the chance of complications is very small, some patients develop an infection from a chemical in the animal's gut that is secreted into the bloodstream. This infection is generally treated with antibiotics and is not life-threatening. Because the leech injects a blood-thinning agent, occasionally blood does not return to normal fast enough and too much bleeding can occur. This may require a transfusion or iron tablets to restore the blood's viscosity. Leeches also secrete a numbing chemical when they latch onto the body, so leech therapy used in plastic surgery is not painful. Once the leeches are used, they are humanely disposed of as medical waste.

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