Maggots, Leeches, and One More Utterly Revolting Medical Therapy

If you think putting maggots on flesh wounds sounds disgusting, wait 'til you finish reading this list.

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U.S. News isn't in the business of ranking medical treatments by how disgusting they are (at least, it isn't yet). But I'll admit that gross medicine has fascinated ever since science writer John Travis suggested years ago that I write an article on the subject. So here's an unranked list of what I consider to be three of the world's grossest medical therapies. Got another one? Submissions welcome.

Maggot therapy. The British medical journal BMJ today published two studies on maggot therapy, also known as larval therapy. They describe how maggots, which are fly larvae, can be allowed to feed on the diseased flesh wounds of living patients. Gross, huh? But apparently it's as effective as a conventional gel in healing certain leg ulcers.

Doctors' experience with maggots goes back decades, if not centuries. There were reports of surgeons in Napoleon's armies and in Confederate units using maggots to heal wounded soldiers. During World War I, a doctor from Baltimore who was serving on the Western Front treated two gravely wounded U.S. soldiers whose wounds he had found covered by maggots. He was so surprised by the health of the tissue beneath the larvae, that he tried treating civilians with maggots after he returned home from the war. I wrote about that doctor's experience and the recent resurgence of maggots in medicine for Science News.

Leech therapy. Leeches have also been used in medicine. In fact, one species of leech is has been given a Latin name, Hirudo medicinalis, that reflects its past importance among doctors. Leeches aren't used so much these days, but recent research has suggested that they can help drain blood from injured veins. I've had (non-medical) leeches on me, though, and I can tell you it isn’t pleasant.

Fecal enema. In this procedure, a doctor infuses fecal matter from a healthy person into the colon of a sick person. It's used to treat gastrointestinal problems that can't be dealt with by other means and are caused by a bacterial imbalance in the gut. The goal is to transfer some beneficial bacteria, which can restore that balance, from the healthy person into the patient.

Years ago, I spoke with a woman who had received a transplant of fecal matter from her husband. The bacteria in the transplant helped cure her of a lingering C-diff infection, which had been causing her chronic diarrhea. Her husband had since died, and she told me she glad to have some of his bacteria still living inside of her and helping her stay healthy. Understandably, though, she didn't let me publish her name.

On Monday, I plan to catch up with maggot advocate Pamela Mitchell, who previously told me that maggot therapy saved her from losing at least one of her feet to amputation. Pam has shared part of her story here. Let me know if you have any questions I should ask her on Monday.

In the meantime, here are some related stories:

  • Maggot Therapy: How to Find a Doctor Who Will Prescribe Maggots
  • Maggots as Good as Gel in Leg Ulcer Treatments
  • Sweet! Honey That Heals Wounds
  • 5 Health Benefits From Bees, and 5 That Call for Caution
  • Wearable Bacteria, Fecal Enemas, and Matching Lesbians