Knee Pain From Arthritis? Try Leeches

Leech Saliva Relieves Osteoarthritis Pain; Could Lead to New Drug

From the WebMD Archives

Nov. 3, 2003 -- A new study shows the ancient medical practice of using leeches may provide a new arthritis pain reliever.

The study appears in the latest Annals of Internal Medicine.

In recent times, several anti-inflammatory and anticlotting substances have been found in leech saliva, writes researcher Andreas Michalsen, MD, with the University of Duisburg-Essen in Essen, Germany.

A pilot study shows that a single treatment with three leeches to the knee rapidly relieved osteoarthritis pain. In fact, topical creams containing nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) also work to relieve arthritis pain, he says.

In this study, Michalsen and colleagues worked with 51 patients with knee osteoarthritis. Each was given a single treatment of four to six leeches applied to the knee -- or a 28-day topical cream containing the non-steriodal anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac. Researchers monitored each patient's pain, function, and stiffness.

They found that, at day seven, arthritis pain was reduced considerably after leech therapy -- more so than with the topical cream. The leech therapy group also had better function and relief from stiffness.

After day seven, the improvements continued in the leech therapy group, until the study's end at day 28 --and although there was less improvement as time went on, patients who had received the leech therapy still reported better symptoms relief scores, writes Michalsen.

The research could lead to a new topical pain reliever -- minus the leeches, says Marc C. Hochberg, MD, MPH, with the University of Maryland School of Medicine. His commentary also appears in Annals of Medicine.

This discovery could ease not only patients' arthritis pain, but also help people with other causes of pain, he writes.

SOURCE: Michalsen, A. Annals of Medicine, Nov. 4, 2003; vol 139: pp 724-730, pp 781-783.