Bee sting acupuncture may seem like a form of torture, but some people, including celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, have been turning to the insect-based treatment in the hopes of lessening stress and pain as well as improving other health conditions.
But a fatal case out of Spain has experts warning users that the practice can quickly turn deadly.
Bee sting acupuncture, also referred to as bee venom acupuncture, is a form of apitherapy. This is the practice of using bee products medicinally.
While new in the United States, the procedure has long been popular in East Asia and South America, according to Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
“It’s touted to relieve pain, especially in patients with arthritis and other rheumatic diseases,” he told Healthline.
There are different ways people may perform bee sting acupuncture, including using live bees or diluted bee venom, according to medical journal reviews.
Glatter said that despite its use in Asian countries, there’s little data to prove that the technique works.
“While one of the active components in bee venom known as melittin does have anti-inflammatory properties, there is no scientific consensus that this compound improves patients’ symptoms,” he said.
What are the risks?
A case study published this month in the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology revealed the potential for the treatment to become dangerous.
Researchers at the Ramon Y Cajal University Hospital in Madrid, Spain, reported that a 55-year-old woman died after a live bee sting, even though she had been undergoing the bee sting acupuncture treatment for years without major issues.
The researchers said that the woman had a “good tolerance” for the therapy, which she pursued to help with stress and muscle contraction.
Despite her past experience with the therapy, the woman suffered a massive allergic reaction shortly after being stung by a live bee.
The woman, who was otherwise in good health, started to experience wheezing and lost consciousness shortly after being stung.
After she started to exhibit symptoms of anaphylaxis, it took 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and administer intravenous adrenaline. The woman also received antihistamines and other medications to help her.
Despite these efforts, she arrived at the hospital in a coma and died weeks later from organ failure.
Her physicians later determined that anaphylaxis, a dangerous type of allergic reaction, had led to a massive stroke, coma, and organ injury.
Why is bee venom deadly?
Bee venom can cause the immune system to overreact in some people.
Often the first sting can cause the body to produce an antibody called immunoglobulin E (IgE).
If a person is stung again, the venom can interact with IgE and trigger the immune system to release substances that can cause allergic reactions, including the dangerous anaphylaxis.
Glatter said that the practice of being stung by live bees for therapy is “extremely dangerous” because past exposure to the therapy puts people at more risk in the future.
“This practice is akin to playing Russian roulette, in which repeated exposures to bee venom lead to an increased risk of suffering a severe allergic reaction or anaphylaxis,” he said. “It’s unknown how many exposures can sensitize an individual, but the odds increase each time a person undergoes such therapy.”
Glatter said that people’s allergic reactions to bee venom can vary widely.
“Reactions from apitherapy can range from minor skin rashes and itching to anaphylaxis, a deadly systemic reaction that results in release of massive amounts of histamine, a drop in blood pressure, airway swelling, and death,” he said.
The study authors said that patients should be informed of the risks and that practitioners need to be prepared for severe allergic reactions.
However, they say that ultimately there may not be a safe way to perform bee sting acupuncture.
“The risks of undergoing apitherapy may exceed the presumed benefits, leading us to conclude that this practice is both unsafe and unadvisable,” they concluded.