Bee stings relieve arthritis: True/False?

It sounds like torture to me, but then compared to the intense pain of arthritis a bee sting is probably just a tickle. It isn’t really surprising, then, that arthritis sufferers are willing to try it. What isn’t so clear is whether it does any good or, indeed, makes things worse.

There is a persistent strand of thought that some diseases are best treated with something nasty, the medical equivalent of two wrongs making a right. Strychnine and arsenic have fallen out of favour and electroconvulsive therapy remains controversial, but there are striking examples well within the bounds of orthodox medicine, like cancer chemotherapy. Maybe arthritis is just one of those problems where the cure is itself an ordeal.

There has been quite a bit of scientific interest in the alleged medicinal properties of bee venom, stimulated by its reputed usefulness as a folk remedy around the world. Inflammation lies at the root of rheumatoid arthritis and it’s bee venom’s potential effects on inflammation and its debilitating consequences that has attracted most scrutiny. Scientists have extracted venom, analysed it, studied its effects and reported promising results. The problem is that other scientists have then issued stinging refutations, sometimes reporting quite the opposite effects.

Depending on which version you accept, then, bee venom either stops inflammation in its tracks or actually stimulates inflammation and exacerbates the problem. It doesn’t help that this is based on testing on isolated cells in the lab, or on animals, making it hard to tell exactly what happens when a bee stings an arthritis sufferer.

The only way out of this is that old standby, more research. Since I’m not doing it — they don’t give me enough danger money for that sort of thing — that leaves us with a rather ambiguous conclusion.

Proponents of bee venom have a high burden of proof — it is venom, after all. Until a lot more study is performed we can’t say much about the properties of bee venom as a drug, except that its use is often accompanied by a buzz — quite literally.

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