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apitherapy

What Is It?
How Does It Work?
What You Can Expect
Health Benefits
How To Choose a Practitioner
Cautions
References
Evidence Based Rating Scale

What Is It?

Apitherapy, or bee therapy, is the use of honeybee venom for therapeutic purposes. (The term comes from the Latin apis, which means "bee.") Honeybee venom is produced in the abdomen of worker bees and is injected via its stinger. During an apitherapy session, bee venom is administered either by needle or actual bee sting. Bee pollen, raw honey, royal jelly, and propolis are also products from bees that are generally considered to have medicinal effects. These products are said to be effective against a wide range of ailments, from arthritis and chronic pain to multiple sclerosis and cancer, although few scientific studies have proved their benefits. For more information on this, see the WholeHealthMD library entry on bee products.

The history of apitherapy extends back to ancient China, Egypt and Greece. Even Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the "father of medicine," used bee venom to treat arthritis and other joint problems. Austrian physician Phillip Terc initiated the modern study of bee venom and intentional bee stings when he published his article "Report about a Peculiar Connection Between the Beestings and Rheumatism" in 1888. The late beekeeper Charles Mraz of Middlebury, Vermont is credited with popularizing bee venom therapy over the past 60 years in the United States. Today, thousands of medical professionals and lay practitioners use apitherapy throughout the world.

How Does It Work?

Chemical studies have shown that bee venom contains a number of powerful anti-inflammatory substances, including adolapin and melittin. Said to be a hundred times more powerful than hydrocortisone, melittin stimulates the body’s production of cortisol, a natural steroid that also acts as an anti-inflammatory. Not surprisingly, bee venom therapy (or BVT) is often used for conditions that involve Inflammation, such as tendonitis, bursitis, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.

What You Can Expect

Bee venom therapy is the most complex of the different types of apitherapy. Always have an allergy test before beginning a course of treatment and always consult a trained practitioner for the treatments. Because honeybee venom is not closely related to wasp or yellow jacket venom, an allergy to those insects does not necessarily rule out being able to have honeybee venom therapy. Nevertheless, careful testing and supervision is a must in all situations. (Eventually, you can learn to administer the treatments at home, either by yourself or with the help of a partner.)

In BVT, the venom is administered by injection, either by needle or by bee sting. Although some practitioners inject the venom with a hypodermic needle, your practitioner may place the bees, one at a time, directly on your skin with a pair of long tweezers and allow them to sting. The bees are typically placed close to the joint, muscle or other body part that needs treatment.

Obviously, the bee sting can be a bit painful. However, honeybee stings are much less painful than wasp or hornet stings. The degree of discomfort depends on how you respond to pain. The first sting is always the worst because you don't know what to expect. Once you know what it feels like, the experience will probably get easier.

Whether you receive BVT treatment by injection or sting, you can expect to feel some local discomfort--inflammation, stiffness, soreness, or itching--but the practitioner will usually place an ice pack on the affected area to reduce these symptoms as quickly as possible. If the practitioner is working with actual bees, the stingers will be removed from your skin shortly after the sting is administered.

For a relatively simple condition, such as tendonitis, just two or three sessions may be required, with two to ten stings per session. For a complex condition, such as multiple sclerosis, you may require up to three sessions per week (with two to three stings per session) for six months or more.

You do not need to consult a practitioner to try the other types of apitherapy. Bee pollen and royal jelly are available over-the-counter in capsules, powders, creams, and lotions for oral or topical use. Raw honey and propolis are available in health-food stores. Because an allergic reaction is always a possibility with bee products, you should proceed with care if you don't know whether or not you're sensitive.

Health Benefits

There have been few controlled scientific studies proving the value of bee venom, but there are anecdotal reports about its health benefits. (One difficulty with controlled studies of bee venom is that a proper Placebo is impossible to create; if you're stung by a bee, you know it.)

Because of its anti-inflammatory properties, bee venom is commonly used to treat diseases such as arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis. It is also used to relieve chronic back and neck pain. Some apitherapists report that bee venom can also help break down and soften scar tissue, flattening scars and lightening them. This idea is supported by the fact that bee venom contains powerful enzymes that can break through scar tissue.

Specifically, bee venom may help to:

Ease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. Certain enzymes and peptides in bee venom battle inflammation and inhibit flare-ups. While therapy with bee venom can be applied “naturally” by holding a bee to the skin until it stings, studies have found that injections of a water-soluble bee venom formulation, called Bee Venom Acupuncture (BVA), into certain acupuncture points may be more effective. (1, 2) A 2002 animal study also found honeybee venom suppressed the erosion of joint Cartilage and arthritic inflammation in rats. (3) A 2005 review of 15 animal studies evaluating the use of BVA for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis found that a number of studies have shown anti-inflammatory and analgesic actions of BVA in treating various types of arthritis, and two randomized, controlled trials and three uncontrolled clinical trials showed BVA was effective in treating arthritis.

Treat multiple sclerosis (MS) symptoms. Bee venom therapy is additionally reported to decrease spasms and fatigue in MS patients and to increase the patients' stability. While it is commonly being used for this purpose, several clinical studies have found no efficacy of bee venom in treating this autoimmune disease. A 2005 randomized, crossover study involving 26 patients with MS who received either bee sting therapy or no treatment for 24 weeks found no improvement in symptoms such as disability, fatigue, or quality of life. The bee sting therapy was well-tolerated, however, and no serious adverse effects were reported by those treated. (5) The National Multiple Sclerosis Association funded research at Allegheny University in Philadelphia to explore the possible benefits of apitherapy. The preliminary results of experiments conducted with laboratory mice, reported in 1998, found no beneficial effect against the course of an MS-like disease. (6) However, research is ongoing.

Desensitize patients with bee allergy. Bee venom therapy has been shown to be safe and effective in treating bee allergy and to provide 98 to 99 percent protection from systemic reactions to bee stings. (7, 8) Studies have shown that once immunotherapy is stopped, the risk of a systemic reaction over the following five to ten years is about 5 to 15 percent. (9) Bee venom therapy has been FDA-approved for the treatment of severe allergies to bee stings. (10) 

Prevent and treat cancer. The melittin in bee venom seems to have anti-cancer activity. The melittin activates the production of cytokines, which in turn improves immune function to destroy cancer cells. (11) A 2006 review of studies evaluating the therapeutic use of apitherapy in treating cancer found bee venom has anti-cancer properties, specifically through the release of enzymes such as phospholipase (PLA2), which is activated by melittin. These properties may be important in treating prostate and breast cancer. (12) 

Treat bursitis and tendonitis. Recurring pressure and inflammation in the small sacs in the shoulder, knee and elbow – called bursa – cause a condition called bursitis. Arthritis may also cause inflammation of bursa. As with treating arthritis, the anti-inflammatory properties of bee venom may help treat bursitis and inflamed tendons, or tendonitis. While anecdotal evidence is positive, scientific research is lacking in these areas. 

How To Choose a Practitioner

There are no licensing or credentialing organizations for apitherapists (apitherapy practitioners). Some physicians perform bee venom therapy themselves; others work with beekeepers who provide the bees and administer the stings under supervision. As in any type of treatment, getting a referral from a trusted health-care practitioner, friend, or relative is the best way to find an apitherapist.

Cautions 

 Advocates say that most of the allergic reactions attributed to honeybee venom are actually to yellow jacket or wasp venom. However, if you are allergic to bee venom, you should be very careful when using this therapy, and get professional supervision. Furthermore, in case you have an undetected allergy, be sure to keep a bee-venom allergy kit (including a syringe and epinephrine) on hand.

 Health shakes (blended drinks from juice bars) often contain bee pollen or other bee products. If you are allergic, such drinks can cause dangerous reactions. Be sure you know what's in a drink before you consume it.

 If you have heart disease, Hypertension, tuberculosis, or diabetes, avoid apitherapy.

 Children less than a year old should never be given honey (raw or otherwise), since it may contain bacteria that can be harmful to them.
 

References 

1. Kwon YB, Lee HJ, Han JH, et al. The water-soluble fraction of bee venom produces antinociceptive and anti-inflammatory effects on rheumatoid arthritis in rats. Life Sci. 2002 May 31;71(2):191-204.
2. Lee JD, Park HJ, Chae Y, Lim S. An Overview of Bee Venom Acupuncture in the Treatment of Arthritis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Mar;2(1):79-84.
3. Kang SS, Pak SC, Choi SH. The effect of whole bee venom on arthritis. Am J Clin Med. 2002;30(1):73-80.
4. Lee JD, Park HJ, Chae Y, Lim S. An Overview of Bee Venom Acupuncture in the Treatment of Arthritis. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2005 Mar;2(1):79-84.
5. Wesselius T, Heersema DJ, Mostert JP, et al. A randomized crossover study of bee sting therapy for multiple sclerosis. Neurology. 2005;65:1764-8.
6. Lublin FD, Reingold SC. Combination therapy for treatment of multiple sclerosis. Ann Neurol. 1998 Jul;44(1):7-9.
7. de Jong NW, Vermeulen AM, de Groot H. Allergy to bumblebee venom. III. Immunotherapy follow-up study (safety and efficacy) in patients with occupational bumblebee-venom anaphylaxis. Allergy 1999;54:980-4.
8. Li JT, Yunginger JW. Management of insect sting hypersensitivity. Mayo Clinic Proc. 1992;67:188-94.
9. Golden DB, Kagey-Sobotka A, Lichtenstein LM. Survey of patients after discontinuing venom immunotherapy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2000;105(2 Pt 1):385-90.
10. Hebel SK, ed. Drug Facts and Comparisons. 52nd ed. St. Louis: Facts and Comparisons, 1998.
11. Bomalaski JS, Ford T, Hudson AP, Clark MA. Phospholipase A2-activating Protein induces the synthesis of IL-1 and TNF in human monocytes.
J Immunol. 1995;154:4027-31.
12. Son DJ, Lee JW, Lee YH, et al. Therapeutic applications of anti-arthritis, pain-releasing, and anti-cancer effects of bee venom and its constituent compounds. Pharmacol Ther. 2007 Aug;115(2):246-70. Epub 2007 May 6.

Evidence Based Rating Scale  

The Evidence Based Rating Scale is a tool that helps consumers translate the findings of medical research studies with what our clinical advisors have found to be efficacious in their personal practice. This tool is meant to simplify which supplements and therapies demonstrate promise in the treatment of certain conditions. This scale does not take into account any possible interactions with any medication/ condition/ or therapy which you may be currently undertaking. It is therefore advisable to ask your doctor before starting any new treatment regimen.

Condition

Rating

Explanation

 

 

 

  

 

 

Arthritis

 

 

 

  

 

 

 

 

Favorable results in patients and preliminary studies indicate potential for efficacy. More research is needed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bee sting allergy 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FDA-approved treatment. Several studies have found treatment to be safe, well tolerated and efficacious.

 

 

Cancer

 

 

A review of studies indicates anti-cancer properties. More research is needed to determine efficacy in humans.

 

 

Multiple sclerosis

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anecdotal evidence indicates some efficacy. Preliminary scientific evidence indicates no efficacy. Research is ongoing in this area.

 

 

Sprains and Strains

 

 

 

 

Anecdotal evidence indicates some efficacy. Clinical research is lacking. More research is needed.

 

 



Date Published: 4/20/2005
Date Reviewed: 4/10/2008



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