Bee venom therapy

With no known cure, some MS sufferers swear by frequent stings to ease symptoms.

With no known cure, some MS sufferers swear by frequent stings to ease symptoms.

March 31, 2003|by KEVIN CLAPP

A bee sting is a nuisance, a painful reminder that the little buzzers are not all smooth and sweet as honey.

Kim Bockstanz, however, invites the bzzzzz brigade to sting her, often. But not without a very important ground rule.

"I ain't stupid," the Williamsport woman says. "I freeze my back first."

Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1985, Bockstanz, 42, has used bee venom therapy for 10 years to alleviate her symptoms of the neurological disease, which affects more than 330,000 Americans.

Twice a week, she puts ice on her back to numb it. Then, husband Wayne uses a pair of 4-inch dentist forceps to snag a honey bee and steer its stinger toward his wife's body. He repeats the procedure as many as 20 times, discarding spent bees in the couple's garbage disposal.


"I've gotten used to it after all these years. Sure, when you're outside running around and get stung by a bee it hurts. It would hurt me, but I'm used to it," Kim Bockstanz says. "It does take a little getting used to it, and it matters what your tolerance to pain is."

Multiple sclerosis is a maddeningly enigmatic disease, affecting more women than men with wildly varying symptoms that typically emerge between the ages of 20 and 50. It can cause blurred vision or loss of balance, slurred speech or tremors. Symptoms may disappear completely and recur, or they may slowly but steadily increase.

MS is not fatal, but, with no known cure, bee venom has worked wonders for Bockstanz, almost immediately making her feel better and encouraging her continued use of the therapy.

Patricia O'Looney, director of biomedical research programs with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, does not endorse bee venom therapy, in part because of the risk of developing an allergic reaction to the sting.

Besides, she says, the unpredictable nature of the disease coupled with available treatments render bee stings obsolete.

"It was understandable 10 years ago, when there were no treatments for MS and frustration was great," O'Looney says. "The positive news is there are treatments available. You don't need someone to go through the difficulty and pain of having bee stings."

Since his son Bill was diagnosed with MS 15 years ago, Thomas Scrivener has become a staunch advocate of efforts to eradicate the disease. He meticulously follows breakthroughs, treatments and trends. He has read about bee venom therapy. He is not impressed.

"People, when they're sick, they grasp at straws," Scrivener says. "And when you can see yourself falling apart and you know it, when you can't work or you can't go out in public without wetting yourself, you grasp at straws."

So, instead of putting his faith in alternative therapies, Scrivener and his family are putting their best foot forward Saturday, April 5, at Antie-tam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg to find a cure.

The Hagerstown MS Walk, one of 700 nationwide in the coming weeks, represents the largest fund-raising push of the year for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, providing much of the $30 million that will be spent on research by the organization this year.

Last year's Hagerstown walk, with nearly 400 participants, raised almost $40,000. Sixty percent was pumped back into local programs, while an additional 21 percent helped fund research and national initiatives.

Studies under way include efforts to better understand myelin, the inflammation and breakdown of which trigger MS symptoms. Other projects are studying genetics, or trying to develop treatments to target only those portions of the immune system affected by MS, rather than the entire network.

The society even funded a 1990s examination of the biological effects of honey bee venom by Dr. Fred Lublin, now with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York. His group studied how purified bee venom could alter an MS-like disease in mice.

His conclusion was that the venom had no effect.

Still, some MS sufferers swear by the therapy. Bed-ridden, with vision and hearing problems, and limbs that felt icy, Pat Wagner of Waldorf, Md., was first stung 11 years ago at her mother's suggestion.

Twenty minutes after her first sting in the leg, the 53-year-old says, her leg felt warm again. Within weeks she was walking, and other symptoms faded. Stung more than 46,000 times since, she uses the bees to sting herself three times weekly.

"I couldn't say I was skeptical. I would try anything," she says. "But a bee sting? That didn't seem logical. Why would anyone sting themselves to get better? But it works."

Wagner has no medical background other than what she has culled in 33 years as an MS patient. She parlayed her experience into the 1996 book "How Well Are You Willing To Bee?" She sees people eager for a sting on Mondays and Fridays, and supplies bees by mail for those interested in treating themselves from home.

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