|What is the research behind bee stings for arthritis?
Medically reviewed by Stella Bard, MD
— Written by Mathieu Rees on December 21, 2021
Bee venom therapy involves injecting a person with honey bee venom or exposing a person to bee stings from live bees. Some evidence suggests this therapy may help people manage joint pain and inflammation associated with inflammatory forms of arthritis.
Bee venom consists of various natural substances that may have beneficial effects on health. Humans have used bee venom as a form of alternative or complementary medicine for thousands of years. However, scientists have only recently begun conducting clinical trials to test the safety and efficacy of bee venom as a treatment for inflammatory arthritis.
This article describes what bee venom therapy is and outlines some of the research into bee venom therapy for arthritis. We also provide information on the safety and side effects of bee venom therapy and list some of the more standard treatment options for arthritis.
What is bee venom therapy?
Honey bees are venomous flying insects that can sting when threatened. A sting transfers venom from the honey bee into its target.
Bee venom therapy refers to any therapy that uses bee venom as a key component. This can involve extracting the bee venom for future use or deliberately provoking live bees to sting a person.
According to a 2018 articleTrusted Source, humans have used bee venom therapy for over 3,000 years. Bee venom contains a variety of chemicals with potential medical applications, including various enzymes, peptides, and amines.
Research behind it
Around 50%Trusted Source of bee venom is a substance called melittin, composed of 26 different amino acids. A 2018 reviewTrusted Source outlines evidence suggesting that bee venom and melittin may have beneficial effects on health. Some important medicinal properties of bee venom and melittin include:
- antibacterial and antiviral properties
- anti-inflammatory properties
- pain-relieving properties
- anti-cancer properties
As a 2021 reviewTrusted Source explains, arthritis is a chronic condition in which inflammation causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in the joints. Because melittin has pain-relieving and anti-inflammatory properties at lower dosesTrusted Source, some researchers have speculated whether bee venom therapy may help alleviate arthritic joint pain and inflammation.
There is some evidence that bee venom could have anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects in animals.
One 2020 study investigated the efficacy of bee venom in rats with artificially induced rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Researchers divided the rats into four groups: one group received bee venom, a second received the anti-arthritis drug methotrexate, and a third group received saline. The fourth group consisted of rats that did not have RA.
The study found that bee venom and methotrexate were similarly effective in reducing RA symptoms. The researchers concluded that bee venom therapy has the potential to alleviate RA pain and inflammation.
Although the study results are promising, the sample size consisted of only 20 rats. Moreover, because the study involved animals, it is not clear whether and to what extent the findings apply to humans. Indeed, human studies investigating bee venom therapy for arthritis show mixed results.
One 2018 studyTrusted Source compared the anti-arthritic effects of bee venom acupuncture with those of the anti-arthritis drugs methotrexate and celecoxib. The study used a relatively large sample of 120 people.
Over the course of 8 weeks, one group received the drug treatment, and the other received 5–15 bee stings every other day. Both groups showed a reduction in their arthritis symptoms, with no significant difference between the groups. Participants in both groups experienced improvements in the following:
Although the above findings are promising, it is important to note that the study was not double-blind and did not compare the treatment effects with those of a placebo. This greatly reduces the reliability of the results.
The results of a 2020 meta-analysis are more promising. This study analyzed the results of several randomized controlled trials investigating bee venom therapy for a range of diseases, including arthritis. The researchers concluded that bee venom therapy might be beneficial in treating inflammatory forms of arthritis.
Bee venom therapy remains an experimental treatment option for arthritis. Although some evidence suggests that bee venom therapy could help manage arthritis, more large-scale, high-quality clinical trials are necessary to confirm its effectiveness.
Bee venom contains many anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating substances, but its clinical effects need further study before people can use it therapeutically. Doctors strongly discourage administration via direct stinging.
The most obvious safety concern regarding bee venom therapy is the possibility of a serious, life threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis. Bee and wasp stings are among the most commonTrusted Source causes of anaphylaxis.
As a 2019 studyTrusted Source explains, allergic reactions to bee stings can lead to the following complications:
- skin problems, such as localized swelling and hives
- gastrointestinal symptoms
- respiratory problems
- heart problems
Anyone considering bee venom therapy should first undergo allergy testing to determine whether they are allergic to bee venom. A person can speak with a doctor to get further advice on allergy testing.
Bee venom functions to protect the beehive from destruction. Stings deter potential intruders or predators by causing pain and discomfort. Potential adverse effects of bee venom and bee venom therapy includeTrusted Source:
Other treatment options
As a 2021 reviewTrusted Source explains, there is currently no cure for arthritis. However, treatments can help alleviate symptoms and slow the progression of the disease. Treatment options will vary according to various factors, including the type of arthritis a person has. Potential treatment options include:
Bee venom contains natural substances that may help alleviate joint pain and inflammation associated with arthritis. Bee venom therapy involves extracting bee venom for therapeutic use or exposing a person to bee stings from live bees. It is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years.
Some research suggests that bee venom therapy may be beneficial in treating arthritis. However, further large-scale randomized controlled trials are necessary to confirm these findings.
Anyone considering bee venom therapy should first undergo allergy testing to determine whether they may be allergic to bee stings. Bee venom can cause a serious and potentially life threatening allergic reaction in susceptible individuals. It may also cause more general side effects, such as severe pain, headache, and muscle weakness.