They undulate through the water in their glass bowl, the shiny black shapes glinting as they catch the light. And when I peer closely at the leeches, I am sure they writhe and wriggle faster – excited as they sense me, their next meal.
These bloodsuckers are about to be put on my face. Their ‘keeper’, Alicja Kolyszko, puts her tweezers in the water to catch one. ‘They are very hungry,’ she says in her jolly Eastern European accent. ‘You are going to be their last supper!’
I am drawn to things dark and gruesome. And it doesn’t get much more gruesome than having bloodsuckers attached to your personage. Dear Lord, what have I let myself in for? As Alicja advances towards me, with a long black slimy creature wriggling in the grip of her tweezers, I remind myself just how bad my migraines are, and how I would go to any lengths to get rid of them.
The word headache doesn’t even begin to describe them – as the eight million Britons who suffer from migraines will no doubt agree. Migraines are miserable with bells on – actually, the idea of listening to the sound of a bell with a migraine brings me out in a sweat. When I am suffering with one, I can’t even stand the sound of my sheets rustling.
Apart from the intense throbbing, all-encompassing pain in my head, I also feel extremely nauseous and sensitive to light. I feel as if I am a vampire – a small sliver of daylight and POOF: I will spontaneously combust.
Oddly, I didn’t have another one until my 20s and since then they have struck sporadically – I could go for six months without suffering, then there would be a whole week of agony.
Some find there are triggers: hormonal cycles, stress, red wine. But mine hit me without rhyme or reason. Which is why I decided to give leech therapy, or hirudotherapy – to give the treatment its correct medical term – a go.
As a believer in alternative medicine, I wanted to try something natural and holistic that didn’t involve days spent downing industrial-strength analgesics. I remembered reading about Demi Moore having leech therapy at a clinic in Austria last year. The actress had the treatment to ‘detoxify her blood’ as part of an alternative beauty therapy.
‘I have always been somebody looking for the cutting edge of things that are optimising your health and healing,’ she said afterwards. If it’s good enough for Demi, it’s good enough for me, I thought. Living in Los Angeles now, I have seen Demi in the flesh. Up close, believe it or not, she is a natural beauty, very un-Hollywood. No fillers or collagen that I could detect.
So if the leeches could do things for my appearance as well as my health, then all the better. And before you put me and Demi in a box marked ‘Complete loons’, it seems modern medicine is also looking to this rather medieval practice as a solution for a host of ailments.
In the 1980s, leeches began to be used by reconstructive plastic surgeons needing to remove stagnant blood from reattached limbs, to stave off gangrene. But now there are numerous studies into medical uses for leeches. One found that a single session of leeching – the medical application of bloodsucking leeches – can significantly reduce knee pain caused by arthritis for at least two months.
Researchers from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany claimed improvement levels were comparable to those achieved with daily moderate doses of painkillers such as ibuprofen. And before you say you’d probably rather pop a pill, consider the damage regularly taking painkillers can do to the stomach.
AT THE BLEEDING EDGE OF MEDICINE – FOR 3,000 YEARS
Bloodletting is the withdrawal of quantities of blood from a patient to cure or prevent illness and disease. Evidence of the practice dates back 3,000 years to Ancient Egypt. It was widespread in mid-19th Century Britain, when six million leeches were imported each year for this purpose.
Though doctors recommended it – fevers, apoplexy and headaches were thought to be caused by ‘too much blood’ – barbers carried out the procedure. Leeches – parasitic worms that feed on blood – were used as an alternative to just cutting the patient’s arm to release blood.
The withdrawal of enough blood to induce syncope (fainting) was considered beneficial, and many sessions would end only when the patient began to swoon. Bloodletting was discredited at the end of the 19th Century as doctors felt it left patients weak and prone to infection, but it has had a recent resurgence, with a wave of celebrities trying it.
Another clinical trial at the university is investigating whether nerve pain caused by shingles could also be remedied by leeching. The secret is in the leeches’ saliva: it apparently contains a large number of analgesic, anaesthetic, and blood-thinning compounds that tackle pain and inflammation, say the researchers.
Google led me to Alicja, a Russian/Polish hirudotherapist with ten years’ experience. She is based in Las Vegas and New York but she has clients from all around the world. Her passion for natural medicine goes back to her childhood in 1960s Poland, where leeches were used as a popular ‘country healing method’ to cure various health problems.
Back then, Kolyszko reminisces, leeches were sold at many pharmacies. Her grandmother would bring one home whenever any family member got sick, pop it on for an hour, and everything would be better. I called her and within five minutes I was swept away by her passion for leeches, or ‘black pearls’, as she describes them.
These aren’t your common-or- garden leeches (there are more than 700 species that live wild in freshwater and marine environments – one once attached itself to my buttock while I was bathing in the Mekong river in Cambodia).
Medicinal leeches are specially cultivated in a sterile environment. The largest leech farm in the world – Biopharm in Hendy, South Wales – was established in 1812, moving to its current base in 1984. Alicja has treated people with all sorts of conditions and illnesses, from infertility to heart conditions to alopecia, and even runs a hirudotherapy training school.
She says the secretions from leeches’ saliva can be used to treat the entire spectrum of physiology: blood-clotting, digestion, connective tissue, disease, pain, inhibition of enzymes, and as a treatment for inflammation.
Armed with this information, and her assurance that she had helped many migraine patients live pain-free, I find myself reclining on my living-room sofa waiting for a leech to bite into me for the first time. It is – how can I put it politely? – an unusual experience.
For a start, when they sense (I am told, smell) flesh, they wiggle and crane their heads toward you. But the worst part is the anticipation. It’s like getting an injection – the sensible thing is not to look at the needle, though I find it impossible not to. And so it is with the wriggling leech.
Just before it bit into me, I could feel its cold and slimy body against my temple. But once it actually did, I was relieved that it felt like no more than a mild sting – the leech secretes an anaesthetic that numbs the skin, otherwise the pain would be unbearable. Botox is a million times worse.
Once Alicja is sure the leech has got to work, then it’s time for the next one, and the one after that, until you have four attached to you. You can definitely feel them working – it is a mild tugging sensation. I know this sounds extraordinary, but I felt incredibly relaxed. The treatment takes about 40 minutes, until the leech is full and falls off, leaving a mark in the shape of a peace sign. They swell to about four times their normal size, as they become gorged with blood.
Once the leeches have done their job, Alicja sends them off to leech heaven by putting them in alcohol (she says it upsets her every time) as reusing them would risk cross-infections. The few hours after the treatment are not for the squeamish – as you do continue to bleed. The next day, I felt exhausted but wonderful. Within a few days, the wounds scab and disappear.
To get the most out of hirudotherapy, you need about three sessions within weeks of each other. I have not had a migraine since that first session. More than that, I feel rejuvenated. (DM)