Venom immunotherapy is the process of injecting venom to treat various conditions. The most common form of venom immunization is bee venom therapy (BVT), with honeybee venom or stingers used to treat conditions. BVT is one form of apitherapy , which is the therapeutic use of products made by honeybees. Other products used in apitherapy include bee pollen and royal jelly .
Apitherapy is thousands of years old. In ancient Egypt, venom from bee stings was used to treat arthritis. Hippocrates, the Greek physician known as the "father of medicine," used bee stings for treatments several centuries before the birth of Christ. Descriptions of apitherapy are found in 2,000-year-old Chinese writings, the Bible, and the Koran.
Bee venom therapy has remained part of folk medicine throughout the centuries. The modern study of apitherapy is said to have started in 1888, with Austrian physician Phillip Terc's research titled "Report about a Peculiar Connection between the Beestings and Rheumatism."
Although a bee sting is painful for most people, the sting can be fatal to some. Approximately 15% of the population is allergic to the sting of such insects as bees and wasps. Allergic reactions range from mild to life-threatening.
In mainstream allopathic medicine, honeybee venom is used to treat people who are allergic to bee stings. A small amount of venom is injected during desensitization treatments to help patients develop a tolerance to stings.
Honeybee venom immunotherapy is used to treat many other conditions in alternative medicine. BVT is regarded as an effective treatment for arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), acute and chronic injuries, migraine headaches, gout , acute sore throat, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome , Bell's palsy, depression, AIDS , scar tissue, and asthma .
Bee venom is also said to relieve premenstrual syndrome (PMS) and conditions related to menopause . However, BVT is most commonly used as an anti-inflammatory remedy for arthritis and MS. Advocates maintain that it will provide relief for rheumatoid arthritis when injected into the joints. Bee venom is also used to lessen the pain and swelling of osteoarthritis as well as such inflammations and injuries as tendinitis and bursitis . Furthermore, people diagnosed with MS say that BVT significantly reduces symptoms that include muscle spasms and tiredness.
Bee venom therapy involves the injection of venom by a needle, insertion of the stinger, or stinging by live bees. While a licensed physician must give injections, other treatments can be done by a bee venom therapist, a beekeeper, the patient, or a friend or relative.
The cost and length of treatment depends on the condition, as well as when and where a person is treated. If a physician provides the treatment, the doctor's appointment may be covered by health insurance. Rates for other therapies are set by beekeepers and bee venom therapists. Information about these providers can be found through organizations such as the American Apitherapy Society. The society's resources include an extensive web site with information about BVT. Apitherapy resources include books and videos about home treatment. Live bees can be ordered by mail; one business in June 2000 charged $50 for four boxes, each containing about 60 bees.
When live bees are utilized, tweezers are used to remove one bee from a container such as a box, jar, or hive. The bee is held over the area to be treated until it stings the patient. The stinger is removed after three to five minutes.
Patients receive an average of two to five stings per session. The number of stings and the number of sessions varies with the condition treated. Tendinitis might require two to three stings per session for two to five sessions. Arthritis is sometimes treated with several stings per session at two to three weekly sessions. MS may take months to treat. While BVT advocates say MS patients are more energetic after several sessions, they maintain that treatment should be done two to three times weekly for six months.
Before beginning venom immunotherapy, a person should be tested for allergies . If a relative or friend plans to help with the therapy, that person should be tested too. Bee venom may cause a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. The symptoms of anaphylaxis include shock, respiratory distress, and in some cases, death. Even if tests indicate that a person isn't allergic to bee stings, it is important to obtain an emergency bee-sting allergy kit before beginning treatment.
People should check with their doctor or practitioner before beginning bee venom immunotherapy. The therapy is not recommended for pregnant women, diabetics, people with heart conditions, tuberculosis , or infections .
An allergy test is a must before starting bee venom therapy. A person who is allergic to bee stings should not start venom treatment. In some cases, scarring and infections have resulted when the stinger was left in too long.
If there is an allergic reaction to bee venom therapy, emergency treatment should be started. Such symptoms as minor itching and swelling, however, are not causes for alarm. They are signs of the healing process.
Research & general acceptance
During the late 1990s, researchers in countries including the United States, France, and Russia began researching the effect of bee venom immunotherapy on humans. Before that, research with such animals as mice indicated that venom could be beneficial for treating inflammatory conditions.
Anecdotal reports by people with MS indicated that venom immunotherapy is effective. Those supporting the study of this therapy include the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America and the American Apitherapy Society. As of June 2000, it remains to be seen whether bee venom immunotherapy is effective.
Training & certification
Although a doctor can administer bee venom therapy, no specific training or certification is required to perform the therapy. Training in handling bees is recommended. Organizations such as the American Apitherapy Society can provide information about training and therapy providers.
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Gottlieb, Bill. New Choices in Natural Healing. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, Inc., 1995.
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American Apitherapy Society (AAS). 5370 Carmel Road. Hillsboro, OH 45133. (937) 466-9214. Fax: (937) 466-9215. http://www.beesting.com
Arthritis Foundation. 1330 W. Peachtree St. Atlanta, GA 30309. http://www.arthritis.org.
Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. 706 Haddonfield Road. Cherry Hill, NJ 08002. (800) 833-4672.