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Bee Venom Therapy for MS

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Updated June 18, 2014

I’ll put my disclaimer right up front: I would not get bee sting therapy. Period.

I probably wouldn’t have ever done it if I hadn’t written this article. After doing some research, I know I definitely won’t do it. It is simply too unproven, and in a couple preliminary trials (both animal and Phase I safety trial), subjects showed worsening of symptoms. Besides that, you have to do it for a long time for it to work. Besides that, it would hurt. Besides that, "yuck."

That is just my opinion, of course. It is estimated that between 5,000 to 10,000 people with MS in the United States use bee sting therapy, so some people must find that it helps them and isn’t unbearable. Read on for more details.

What Is It?

Bee sting therapy is one type of “apitherapy,” a term which refers to the use of bee products to treat medical conditions. Other forms of apitherapy include the use of bee pollen, propolis (a waxy substance produced by bees), raw honey and royal jelly. Bee sting therapy, also referred to as “bee venom therapy,” is pretty much just what it sounds like -- getting stung with bees in a controlled setting.

What Is It For?

It is used by people with many different autoimmune disorders, including MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and scleroderma. It is also used for a number of other diseases and conditions, including depression, skin conditions, menstrual cramps and varicose veins.

How Is It Supposed to Work?

It is claimed that bee sting therapy works with the patient's own body to reduce inflammation. The theory is that because the stings produce inflammation, the body mounts an anti-inflammatory response. Presumably, this would then work to reduce inflammation where the myelin is being attacked by the immune system in a person with MS.

What Happens During a Treatment?

Bee sting practicioners include nurses, acupuncturists, naturopaths and interested laypersons, including beekeepers. Some patients eventually just order some bees and perform the sessions themselves. Bee sting therapy is also given by physicians, who use venom in an injectible form and inject it under the skin, rather than live bees.

Before the treatment begins, the therapist may inject the patient with a weak form of the venom to test for an allergic reaction. A bee (usually a honeybee) is held with tweezers up to a part of the body. The stingers are left in for up to 15 minutes, then removed with tweezers. Between 20 to 40 stings are done each session, and a patient typically gets three sessions a week.

What Does It Feel Like?

It feels like being stung by 40 bees, to put it plainly. Since different people have different tolerances for pain and different reactions, the amount of discomfort will vary (or at least be perceived differently) between patients. Sometimes ice is used before and/or after the stings to lessen the pain.

How Effective Is It for MS?

Bee sting therapy has been studied on a limited basis for MS. A couple of studies used bee sting therapy in mice who had experimental allergic encephalomyelitis (EAE). The treatment not only showed no benefit, some of the mice receiving bee stings seemed to have a worsening of symptoms. A 2004 randomized crossover study was conducted in the Netherlands among 24 people with either relapsing-remitting MS or secondary-progressive MS. While the treatment was well-tolerated, no beneficial effects were seen on the MRIs or clinically among these patients.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, bee sting therapy has been reported by people with MS to increase stability, as well as reduce fatigue and spasticity. More than 1,300 people with MS have sent testimonials to the American Apitherapy Society in support of the therapy.

How Much Does It Cost?

Bee sting therapy is not covered by insurance. I had a difficult time locating any information about cost.

Are There Any Risks?

Most people experience some degree of swelling and redness at the sting site. About 20% of people experience itching, hives, fatigue or anxiety. Some patients report flu-like symptoms.

While rare, there are a couple of important risks and precautions to be aware of:

  • Death: A small number of people (less than 100) die every year from reactions to bee stings. These deaths could be due to anaphylaxis (severe allergic reactions) or heart attacks brought on by a mild allergic reaction in combination with other factors. It is important that an Epi-Pen Autoinjector be available in case of an allergic reaction.
  • Optic Neuritis: This inflammation of the optic nerve has been caused in people, even without MS, when bee stings are given on or near the eye area, including the temple or eyebrow area. It is important to avoid all bee stings in this area.
  • Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis: This is a rare form of inflammation of the central nervous system, which is very similar to that which occurs in MS.
  • Cautions: Bee sting therapy should not be used by people with insulin-dependent diabetes, syphilis, gonorrhea, tuberculosis or severe allergies.

Additional Tips and Information

  • People with MS who have used bee sting therapy claim that you must get therapy two or three times a week for six months in order to see effects.
  • To find someone to perform bee sting therapy or a reliable supplier of bees, contact the American Apitherapy Society at 631-470-9446.

Sources:

Bowling, Allen C. “Chapter 9: Bee Venom Therapy and Other Forms of Apitherapy.” Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Multiple Sclerosis. 2nd ed. Demos Publishing: New York. 2007.

D'Epiro, Nancy Walsh. "Bee Venom for Multiple Sclerosis." Patient Care 33, 14; September 15, 1999. Pages 27-31.

Wesselius T, Heersema DJ, Mostert JP, Heerings M, Admiraal-Behloul F, Talebian A, van Buchem MA, De Keyser J. A randomized crossover study of bee sting therapy for multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2005 Dec 13;65(11):1764-8. Epub 2005 Oct 12.

Castro HJ, Mendez-Lnocencio JI, Omidvar B, Omidvar J, Santilli J, Nielsen HS Jr, Pavot AP, Richert JR, Bellanti JA. A phase I study of the safety of honeybee venom extract as a possible treatment for patients with progressive forms of multiple sclerosis. Allergy Asthma Proc. 2005 Nov-Dec;26(6):470-6.

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