The Grapevine

Acupuncture Science Is Debatable, But Bee Sting Therapy Can Be Lethal

The health benefits and risks of acupuncture have been debated in the medical community. The popular treatment involves inserting needles into certain points of the body. By stimulating the nerves, this is said to help in releasing endorphins in the brain and promote a healing process. 

While some studies have shown the treatment to be effective in fighting chronic pain and depression, scientists also caution that methodological problems make it difficult to confirm these findings.

"Trials on acupuncture involve a lot of variability, especially in relation to depression, which is unlikely to be a single disease entity," explains acupuncturist Hugh MacPherson, a senior research fellow at the University of York in England.

He highlights evidence from trials including one where patients on antidepressants who received acupuncture felt better than patients who only took the medication.

In June 2013, pharmacologist David Colquhoun and neurologist Steven Novella published a skeptical analysis in the journal Anesthesia and Analgesia, writing that "the benefits of acupuncture are likely nonexistent, or at best are too small and too transient to be of any clinical significance." 

Relatively few side effects have been reported from needle-based acupuncture when performed by a licensed professional. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) does note that, if delivered incorrectly, it can cause infections or serious internal organ damage.

But it appears that not all forms of acupuncture necessarily use needles. For one, a branch of alternative medicine called apitherapy promotes bee venom acupuncture (BVA) among other medicines and treatments based on honey bees. Instead of using needles, the practitioner places a bee on the patient's body and squeezes its head until it stings the desired point on the skin. There has been no science-based evidence to back up bee venom therapy, which has claimed to prevent cancer.  

Many suggest that the treatment only seems to work due to the placebo effect, a phenomenon where a patient's belief in their treatment can convince their body that it is actually working. 

In 2015, the National Center for Biotechnology Information released a study indicating that nearly 29% of patients who opted for bee venom therapy experienced adverse effects. Most recently, a case report made headlines this week as it revealed the first known case of death by BVA.

Published in the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology, the report detailed how a 55-year-old woman from Spain suffered "wheezing, dyspnea, and a sudden loss of consciousness immediately" after being stung by a live bee as a part of the treatment. Her blood pressure dropped to such dangerously low levels that left her in coma. A few weeks after the incident, the woman died from multiple organ failure. The victim had been receiving BVA every month for the past two years without experiencing problems.

"Repeated exposure to the allergen was found to carry a greater risk of severe allergic reactions than in the general population," wrote the authors Paula Vázquez-Revuelta and Ricardo Madrigal-Burgaleta from the Ramón y Cajal University Hospital in Spain. "The risks of undergoing apitherapy may exceed the presumed benefits, leading us to conclude that this practice is both unsafe and unadvisable," they stated.