Arthritis. Acute and chronic injuries. Scar tissue. Multiple sclerosis. What do these conditions have in common? These are the four most frequent medical conditions treated by bee venom therapy — a type of apitherapy (Rothfield). Apitherapy includes many various medicinal uses of honeybee products — from beeswax to royal jelly to the venom. Bee venom therapy, in particular, has been in practice since ancient times but is now undergoing serious scientific skepticism (Simics).
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To better understand bee venom therapy, the effect of a bee sting should be examined closely on a physiological level. Honeybee venom has several active components: enzymes, other small proteins — melittin, peptide, and apamin — peptides, and amines (Vetter & Visscher). Indeed, more than 18 active components in bee venom have some pharmaceutical use (Simics). Melittin is the main protein in bee venom constituting almost half of the venom dry weight. This substance, in addition to being responsible for the pain experienced in stung individuals, will hydrolyze cell membranes which change the cell’s permeability (Vetter & Visscher). Melittin is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory substances known to man. In fact, it is at least 100 times more potent than hydrocortisol (Rothfield). Peptide 401 in the venom causes mast cells to emit histamine — this causes the inflammatory reaction. Another enzyme, phospholipase A2 is non-toxic, but when combined with melittin becomes majorly hemolytic, which means that it is destructive to red blood cells. It is also this substance which causes an allergic reaction in individuals susceptible to anaphylaxis.
The second most common allergen in honeybee venom is hyaluronidase. This causes the spreading of the bee venom in mammals. (Interestingly, honeybees will lose their stinger after stinging a mammal and die. However, they keep their stinger after stinging invertebrates.) Other physiologically active components include norepinephrine, dopamine and histamine. A bee’s stinger is composed of a stylet with twin lancets. These lancets are barbed at the tip, designed to hold in the flesh. Muscles at the base of the sting contract which slide the lancets back and forth and told the sting farther into the flesh. Pump diaphragms attached to the lancets also move to pump the venom down a channel in the sting shaft (Vetter & Visscher). (See figure to the right.) Apamin within the venom serves to block calcium dependent sodium channels which enhances nerve transmission (Rothfield).
Getting stung by a bee also produces swelling and pain — some effects are known to last days. Why would someone subject themselves to this type of pain? People suffering from multiple sclerosis (MS) are among the top users of this type of apitherapy. Multiple sclerosis is a degenerative disease in which inflammation causes the myelin on nerves to degenerate. Because the myelin is responsible for covering and insulating the nerves which makes the impulses fire more rapidly, the breakdown of this substance will cause a patient to experience an interference with functions controlled by the nervous system. The vision, walking, speech, writing and even memory will be taken away from someone suffering with MS (answers.com).
Complications resulting from MS are numerous: from spastic muscles to laughing/weeping syndrome to bladder and sexual dysfunction. Patients can take a vast variety of drugs to combat these complications — over-the-counter and prescription drugs and may be taking as much as 20 different medications (medicinenet.com). Suddenly, getting stung by bees does not seem like that big of a deal. My sister, who was recently diagnosed with MS (just last month; she is 23) was introduced to the world of MS quite abruptly. The doctors told her that she would have to give herself a shot every other day. My mom’s best friend, also suffering from MS, says that this shot hurts, and produces flulike symptoms that sometimes last dozens of hours. Getting stung by a bee? Looks like a piece of cake if it gets rid of the symptoms and complications resulting from MS.
I also know how horrible arthritis can be: my mother suffers from the rheumatoid version. Sometimes the pain is so excruciating that she cannot even get out of bed. There are treatments available — steroids and such — but the only thing that alleviates the pain has serious side effects: loss of vision, loss of hair, and weight gain. Rheumatoid arthritis occurs in people of all ages and hurts because it inflames the joints. It is an autoimmune disease in which body cells attack themselves (answers.com). This disease is chronic and progressive, and without treatment, can be utterly disabling. For arthritis-sufferers who have failed to find relief within the bounds of modern medicine, bee venom therapy has had a tremendous success in their lives — relieving pain and sometimes reversing conditions (Simics).
Just how does bee venom therapy work? Essentially, a person allows himself to be stung in acupuncture or other critical areas on the skin. The bee pumps in the venom, and the venom works its magic (Lee). This is the most commonly used form of bee venom therapy because it is the least expensive route, but there are other ways that bee venom therapy is administered. People have been known to extract the venom from the bee and inject it into their skin with a needle. (Simics). The venom also stresses a small area of the human immune system — allowing it to come back even stronger. With more and more exposure to bee venom, the body learns how to respond and health is increased (Lee). Bee venom may also help the body release more of its own natural healing elements to come to its own defense (Downey).
Almost all of the components within bee venom have been identified, and all these components seem to relieve a variety of symptoms. Dr. Ross Hauser says that it is clear that bee venom stimulates various glands facilitating the production of chemicals by causing an immune reaction within the human body (Dueholm). It is also held responsible for greater blood circulation and increased energy levels (Lee, Dueholm).
Although bee venom therapy seems to be miraculous in its application, there are also some serious risks. Anaphylactic shock is a terrible reality within allergic individuals that, untreated, results in death within an hour (Vetter & Visscher). For this reason, those who treat others with bee venom therapy always keep a kit nearby when treating for the first time (Dueholm). It is said that about 5% of Americans are allergic to bee stings, but this is relatively inaccurate. About 5% of Americans are allergic to some form of sting — the majority of which are wasp, hornet and yellow jacket stings. Only about 1% of those who say they are allergic to bee stings are actually allergic to honeybees stings (Vetter & Visscher). Nonetheless, anaphylaxis is still a risk.
Also, there is no guarantee that bee sting therapy will work. There are no modern (American) studies done on the subject, which causes medical experts to look at the practice with skepticism. According to a small study done by Ross Hauser, only 58% of MS patients reported an improvement when exposed to bee venom therapy for a year (Lee). Another obstacle for studying bee venom therapy in an entirely scientific way is the lack of an appropriate placebo. Nothing can be found that simulates the itchiness and redness of a bee sting accurately (Dueholm).
Overall, bee venom therapy seems to have a positive effect on those suffering from chronic pain and other degenerative diseases, specifically arthritis and multiple sclerosis. It is no wonder that bee venom is mostly successful; the melittin it contains is a powerful anti-inflammatory agent — 100 times more powerful than hydrocortisol. Although being stung may be a painful process, it is a better alternative than suffering the chronic pain endured by those with arthritis and multiple sclerosis. It is also a better alternative than taking modern drugs whose side effects are damaging and unwanted. The risk incurred by those who decide to go with bee venom therapy are real — especially for allergic individuals — and should be evaluated before treatment. Bee venom therapy may not have conclusive support from the scientific world, but those who have experienced its effects know that it is more than just a buzz.
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