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Leech Therapy for Osteoarthritis

Investigators are taking treatment for osteoarthritis of the knee back to the future.They find applying leeches to the knees of patients helps relieve pain and other symptoms better than traditional topical medications.//

The application of leeches to treat pain is an ancient medical practice. Although the treatment declined in popularity with the introduction of modern surgery and pharmacology, it is still used in some instances, such as in treating postoperative complications after some surgeries. Scientists believe leeches help reduce pain through biologically active substances found in their saliva.

In this study, 51 patients with osteoarthritis of the knee were assigned to receive either traditional treatment with a standard topical medication for 28 days or a single treatment involving the application of four to six leeches to the affected area.

At a one week follow-up, patients who received the leech therapy reported significantly less pain than those who were using the topical medication. While pain scores after seven days were similar for the two groups, the leech group continued to report better function, less stiffness, better overall symptom control, and improved quality of life throughout the study.

In an accompanying editorial, Marc C. Hochberg, M.D., M.P.H., from the University of Maryland, suggests these findings offer hope to patients for whom no other treatment relieves the pain of osteoarthritis -- especially if researchers can identify the active ingredient in leech therapy that leads to the effectiveness of the treatment.

"While future studies might demonstrate consistent efficacy of leech therapy, the more exciting aspect of this work is the potential for the discovery of a novel analgesic agent that could be safely administered without the need for a leech bite," he writes.

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