Bee Sting Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

Questionable Benefits and Definite Risks Associated With Using Bee's Venom

Honeybee collecting pollen from a flower.
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Bee sting therapy, also referred to as “bee venom therapy,” is pretty much just what it sounds like—getting stung by bees in a controlled setting.

More specifically, bee sting therapy is a 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.

How Bee Therapy Works

It's believed that bee sting therapy works with the patient's own body to reduce inflammation. The theory is that because the bee 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 Treatment

Bee sting practitioners include nurses, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and interested laypersons, including beekeepers. Although, some people just order some bees and perform the sessions themselves. Bee sting therapy can also be given by physicians—they use venom in an injectable form, administering it under the skin, rather than live bees.

Before the treatment begins, the therapist may inject you 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 stinger is left in for up to 15 minutes and then removed with tweezers. Between 20 to 40 stings are done each session, and a person typically undergoes three sessions a week.

What Bee Sting Therapy Feels Like

To put it simply, bee sting therapy feels like being stung by 40 bees. That said, since people have different tolerances for pain, the amount of discomfort will vary.

To ease the pain, sometimes ice is used before and/or after the stings.

Effectiveness of Bee Sting Therapy

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), a condition that resembles MS in humans. The treatment not only showed no benefit, but some of the mice receiving bee stings seemed to have worsening symptoms.

In addition, a study was conducted in the Netherlands among 24 people with either relapsing-remitting MS or secondary progressive MS. While the bee sting treatment was well-tolerated, no beneficial effects were seen on the MRIs or clinically (meaning their symptoms did not get better) among these patients.

Despite a lack of scientific evidence, bee sting therapy has been reported anecdotally by some people with MS to increase stability, as well as reduce fatigue and spasticity.

Risks of Bee Sting Therapy

Of course, besides pain, there are risks with undergoing bee sting therapy. Most people experience some degree of swelling and redness at the sting site. Other adverse effects reported include:

  • Itching
  • Hives
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Cough
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Yellowing of the white part of the eyes (called jaundice)
  • Severe pain in the left shoulder and arm and chest wall
  • Muscle weakness of the left arm and hand.

Rarely, these very serious and severe effects below have also been reported:

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 like dehydration or a preexisting heart condition. It's important that an Epi-Pen Autoinjector is available in case of an allergic reaction.

Optic Neuritis

Inflammation of the optic nerve (optic neuritis) may occur in people (regardless if they have MS or not) when bee stings are given on or near the eye area, including the temple or eyebrow area.

This is why it's 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.

A Word From Verywell

A couple take-home points to keep in mind is that bee sting therapy is meant to be a complementary MS therapy, meaning that it should not be used as a substitute for disease-modifying therapies.

Secondly, at this time, there simply is not enough robust evidence to support bee sting therapy as an effective treatment (why you may opt for something more relaxing and peaceful like a massage or yoga). In other words, more clinical studies are needed to really understand its benefit (if any) in MS. 

Sources:

Bowling, Allen C. (April 2011). Neurology Care: Bee Venom Therapy.

Namjooyan, F., Ghanavati, R., Maidinasab, N., Jokari, S., & Janbozorgi, M. (2014). Uses of complementary and alternative medicine in multiple sclerosis. Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 4(3):145-52.

Park JH, Yim BK, Lee JH, Lee S, Kim TH. Risk associated with bee venom therapy;: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2015;10(5):e0126971.

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