Bee Venom Therapy and MS

Bee venom therapy: A potential palliative for MS?

Bee venom therapy: A potential palliative for MS?

The honeybee has provided humankind with some of its oldest forms of therapy and medicinal treatment. The ancient Egyptians are the first recorded users of bees in palliative care and are known as the fathers of apitherapy. Today, bee venom and bee sting therapies are still used to treat inflammatory conditions, such as chronic pain from arthritis, shingles or painful allergic skin conditions. Increasingly, bee venom therapy has been generating great 'buzz' amongst medical practitioners as a means of coping with a severe neurological disorder, multiple sclerosis (MS) (Bee sting, 2010, Discovery Health). Other bee products, such as bee pollen and even honey are used to treat inflammatory conditions like allergies (American Apitherapy Society, 2010, Official Website). But while eating local honey to build up one's immunity against tree pollen is relatively pleasant and does little apparent harm, the use of bee stings for a serious illness poses more compelling ethical and medical dilemmas.

The use of bee venom may sound more like a punishment rather than a palliative cure. But bee sting therapy is based upon the principles of homeopathic medicine, where a small amount of irritation is supposed to enable the body to better cope with stress. Bee venom therapy (BVT) uses the stings of live bees to alleviate the specifically inflammatory symptoms of MS such as pain, loss of coordination, and muscle weakness, although it does not claim to cure the condition (Bee sting, 2010, Discovery Health). Because of its homeopathic nature, the use of the venom is not limited to the specific, afflicted areas of the body. Anecdotally, using the venom in different places seems to produce different results for the patient. The compounds in bee venom, namely melittin and adolapin are thought to be the active chemicals that produce the palliative effects and anti-inflammatory results of BVT. It is uncertain if the individual chemicals each have an effect, or if they holistically produce the result (Bee sting, 2010, Discovery Health). As MS causes overactivity in the immune system the venom could counteract the production of antibodies in the same way desensitization injections reduce an allergic response in a patient (Fifield 2002).

The difficulty in testing homeopathic remedies is one of the many reasons that modern medicine is skeptical about the use of such treatments. Until recently no peer-reviewed studies on BVT larger than a handful of cases were conducted in America, although there are many anecdotal, positive case studies. The largest study ever conducted was a 2004 randomized crossover study in the Netherlands of 24 patients with relapsing-remitting MS or secondary-progressive MS. The results suggested that the patients were not harmed by the treatment, but there was no evidence that the treatment produced effects comparable to conventionally recommended drugs for MS (Stachowiak 2007). Studies on mice with an inflammatory condition, experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE) also showed no benefit from bee venom therapy, and BVT seemed to exacerbate some of their symptoms, although EAE can manifest an erratic progression, much like MS (Stachowiak 2007).

Yet despite the lack of scientific evidence, bee sting therapy has been reported by people with MS to increase stability, as well as reduce fatigue. A resistance to homeopathic medicine within the United States may be a contributing factor in the lack of research. Of the more than 250,000 cases of multiple sclerosis in the U.S., thousands of patients have tried it as an alternative approach to drug treatment despite the lack of peer-reviewed evidence. Most of the 10,000 people providing BVT are not licensed physicians (Bee sting, 2010, Discovery Health). 1,300 people with MS have sent testimonials of the positive benefits of the treatment to the American Apitherapy Society in support of the therapy (Bee sting, 2010, Discovery Health).

Beekeepers and acupuncturists are the most common dispensers of care, and some patients even treat themselves. The cross-over between acupuncture and BVT seems obvious. Like acupuncture, BVT involves the use of pinprick-like sensations, often on different areas of the body than where the pain is localized. Like acupuncture, BVT has been used a great deal in history, but is now rare in modern medicine. The lack of professional background amongst practitioners, however, created some safety concerns. There is always the danger of allergic reactions to bee stings. Although usually the patient is first injected with a small amount of venom, to test for allergies, bee sting allergies can spontaneously develop. MS sufferers wishing to avail themselves of the therapy say they have little choice than to seek alternative healers, given that only fifty U.S. physicians use BVT to treat MS (Bee sting, 2010, Discovery Health).

Resistance to bee sting therapy is very strong, even amongst those who have not tried it. According to one woman, she said that after some research, she was so revolted by the description she would consider using BVT (Stachowiak 2007). The process itself can undeniably be off-putting. During the treatment itself twenty to forty stings are administered, as each stinger from a live bee is left in the patient for fifteen minutes, then extracted with tweezers (Stachowiak 2007). Even a successful treatment can produce swelling as large as a golf ball in some patients, although this may eventually abate with repeated administration (Fifield 2002).

The treatment is reportedly painful when the bees, held with tweezers, are forced to sting the patient. This also means that up to forty bees die during a session, as less painful honeybees are used, which die after they sting in defense. Sometimes ice is used before at the treatment. But sadly, MS patients often have a higher pain tolerance, given the suffering of the disorder -- although individuals with a lower pain tolerance, who do not wish to have additional treatment-induced pain stress may find BVT difficult. Of the up to 10,000 patients who claim to benefit from the treatment, approximately two or three times a week for six months is required in order to see positive benefits (Stachowiak 2007).

The treatment is not without side effects. Even people without MS who get the treatment report that they experience some degree of swelling and redness, as is common after a bee sting and about 20% of people experience mild allergenic effects, including itching, hives, fatigue and anxiety. Even flu-like symptoms are not uncommon. Unusual side effects are unsurprising, given the treatment involves many more bee stings than an individual would likely encounter outside of treatment. Serious side effects are rare, but given the severity of MS outside of the treatment should not be taken lightly. Even previously non-allergic individuals can develop life-threatening reactions to bee stings, which is one reason why an Epi-Pen should be available during treatment in case of an allergic reaction. Practitioners that give the stings near the eye have had patients develop optic neuritis. Ironically, individuals with MS often have this inflammatory condition before bee sting treatment. Now, use of bees near the eye is contraindicated for all patients. Other problems include acute disseminated encephalomyelitis, or inflammation of the central nervous system, very similar to that which occurs in MS (Stachowiak 2007).

The most recent study of BVY conducted in the U.S. was at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC demonstrated some of the difficulty of studying patients with progressive neurological disorders (Haran 2004). Firstly, there are various types of multiple sclerosis, and while some patient's illnesses have a relatively steady and progressive course, most manifestations of the illness abate and intensify in ways that are difficult to predict. Thus, a patient could respond quite well to the treatment, but although the improvement might be correlated with the bee sting treatment, the venom was not necessarily the cause of the remission. Additionally, patients must be…