Do folk remediessuch as snake venom and bee venom treatments work

Sir Augustus D'Este, a grandson of King George III of England, was the first person clearly known to have MS. The treatment he received, as revealed in his diary, was entirely symptomatic. We would not consider repeated enemas and bloodletting to be symptomatic treatment today. Unfortunately, many of the kinds of treatment that today's patients and their families embrace are just as rational as those that he received.

MS treatment in the past was essentially symptomatic —that is, treatment aimed solely at alleviating specific symptoms or making patients feel better. Although that may be good, it is not enough by itself. Treatments were not based on scientific study. Most were not effective, and some were harmful. Today's operators of health food stores sell a large variety of unproven herbal remedies that they justify with unsubstantiated claims. By and large, herbal preparations and most of the preparations sold in such stores should be avoided.

Enemas liquids used to facilitate bowel evacuation; usually water or oil based materials. They are put into the rectum via an enema tube attached to a bag or othercon-tainer.

Decades ago, as an intern, I was asked to start IV alcohol on a patient with MS. The prescribing neurosurgeon stated that he had just read a paper in a medical journal claiming benefit for this form of treatment. Despite reservations, I complied. The patient became intoxicated but, nevertheless, felt that she had been helped. The neurosurgeon was embarrassed and abandoned this therapy. Later in my training, I was advised by Lord Brain, a famous British neurologist of the day, that "any drug that had been used for any therapeutic purpose had been tried on patients with MS." I have subsequently come to realize that he was not exaggerating. The major problem is not so much that they are unhelpful but that many treatments are potentially dangerous. Untested drugs, whether purified or in their crude state, should be viewed as potentially dangerous in their own right or by virtue of drug interactions.

Snake Venom

Several decades ago, a self-styled microbiologist in Florida presumed that if an animal (or human) recovered from a snake bite, that recovery occurred because of a biological reaction (perhaps an antibody) that eliminated the offending venom. He reasoned further that the response to snake venom (an antibody) could eliminate offending cross-reacting infectious agents such as poliovirus or toxins. He started giving injections of diluted venom to believers with a variety of illnesses, many of whom gave testimonials claiming improvement. When the serpentarium in South Miami closed around 1980, the source of the venom disappeared, but the myth continued. After having examined many dozens of MS patients who had received venom over a period of years, I concluded that there was no evidence that they had benefited from their experience. This was so, even though published research has revealed antiviral activity in the natural snake venom.

Bee Venom

Folk remedies are often applied with great conviction and ceremony. One of these, originating in the jungles of South America, is the practice of applying bee stings for arthritis. Several years ago a scientific study was carried out that initially seemed to confirm some benefit from the practice. Subsequently, purification of the venom was performed in an attempt to find a marketable product. This led to the finding of a single protein in the bee venom that was thought to be the active ingredient. Unfortunately, this purified protein failed to relieve arthritis, and scientific research was halted.


A term commonly used to describe joint disease causing pain. It should, however, be reserved for inflammatory disease of joints, as rheumatoid arthritis.

Claims that bee stings offer a therapeutic benefit for MS have no scientific basis. No pharmaceutical company is likely to pursue this issue. There is real potential harm to MS patients who are immunosuppressed from certain treatments such as steroids, azathioprine (Imuran), or methotrexate. There are tetanus spores in bee venom, and in immunosuppressed patients, germination of these spores can lead to tetanus, which is potentially fatal. The only notable effects in MS patients that I have witnessed have been allergic reactions complicated by serious deterioration, ending in death in a small number of MS patients. We have never used nor recommended bee venom as a treatment for MS.

A word of warning: Any lay person can walk into health food store and be met with multiple unfounded claims for products that can be obtained without prescription. Buyer Beware!


A potentially fatal illness produced by infection with the bacterium Clostridium tentani, most often complicating wound contamination. It is characterized by rapidly increasing stiffness and may lead to seizures and death.

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