Bee venom therapy may give new hope to arthritis sufferers.
By Charles Downey
Louise Chirasello of Brewster, New York, was suffering intractable pain from her two hip replacement operations. She tried to get relief from the strongest prescribed painkillers, and from physical therapy.
But nothing worked. "I was so sore, you could not touch my hips without me crying out," says Chirasello.
Then she heard about Lawrence Cohen, a doctor in Danbury, Conn., who treats terrible pain with the venom of ordinary honeybees. At first, Cohen gave the 84-year-old widow several injections of bee venom weekly, but eventually reduced the dose to one injection every two or three weeks.
"Right after I got that first injection of bee venom, I left his office pain-free," Chirasello says. A year later, she is still free of pain and has needed no additional bee venom injections.
Although bee venom therapy is largely an unproven technique, about 50 U.S. physicians report good results using the substance to treat not only pain but arthritic conditions, multiple sclerosis, and other health woes. Other practitioners treat high blood pressure, asthma, hearing loss, and even premenstrual syndrome with bee venom.
According to Christopher Kim, medical director of the Monmouth Pain Institute in Red Bank, N.J., bee venom therapy has been around for thousands of years. Reference to the treatment can be found in ancient Egypt and Greek medical writings. Also known as apitherapy, the technique is more widely used in Eastern Europe, Asia and South America.
Treatments supposedly started after beekeepers, who were stung many times, noticed their arthritis pains were relieved. Some practitioners still use live bee stings to deliver the venom.
Most Got Better
Kim, who has administered apitherapy to 3,000 people, published a two-year study on 108 rheumatoid and osteoarthritis patients who had not responded to convention treatments. Starting with twice-weekly injections, he gradually increased the number of shots until the patients improved significantly. Most subjects showed improvement after an average of 12 injections.
In his article -- printed in the March 1989 issue of the German journal, Rheumatologie -- Kim concluded that apitherapy was safe, effective, and free of serious side effects.
But evaluations of most U.S. medical treatments are based on double-blind studies -- where neither the subject nor researcher knows who is getting the real medicine or a placebo. Most reports about bee venom therapy are anecdotal. Even those studies looking at more than one patient, such as Kim's, have not included a placebo group for comparison.
"It's very difficult to find a placebo substance that will mimic a bee venom injection or sting with its itching, redness, and swelling," says Kim.
Bee Venom Studied
Nonetheless, enough interest exists in apitherapy and its health claims that Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., has begun a one-year preliminary study of bee venom to treat multiple sclerosis -- a chronic, progressive, and often crippling neurological disorder.
"Most the 40 ingredients in bee venom have been identified," says Cohen. "Mellitin, an anti-inflammatory agent found in the venom, is one hundred times stronger than cortisone."
Bee venom also contains a substance known as adolapin, which is both anti-inflammatory and pain-blocking. Practitioners believe all the ingredients in bee venom work together to cause the body to release more natural healing compounds in its own defense. Bee venom is also said to increase blood circulation and reduce swelling.
But some caution is necessary. Because one to five percent of the population is allergic to bee venom, apitherapy patients must first be tested. Moreover, the practitioner should have close at hand a bee sting kit which can remedy allergic reactions.
"From where I sit, most bee venom therapy treatment is done on arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and relieving numbness in an arm or leg," says Ross Hauser, a doctor at the Caring Medical & Rehabilitation Service in Oak Park, Illinois.
In a study as yet unpublished, Hauser followed for one year 51 patients with documented chronic progressive multiple sclerosis. The subjects started bee venom therapy with one injection weekly and increased to an average of eleven shots every other week.
"Fifty-eight percent had a very positive response and got significantly better," says Hauser. "But 30 percent had no benefit, and one patient got worse."
The patients who improved could walk and climb stairs better and had better bowel and bladder control, as well as more control over the activities of daily living.
The downside, according to experts, is that some patients can't endure the injections or bee stings. Says Hauser, "I've had patients who did very well with bee venom therapy but found the injections too painful."