June 18, 2014 -- Both acupuncture and bee-venom acupuncture improved symptoms in people with Parkinson’s disease, a small study shows.
Acupuncture has been used for years in Asia to relieve Parkinson’s symptoms. Early studies show it may help protect nerve cells like the ones the disease destroys. Researchers have also been looking into bee venom’s ability to ease inflammation in nerve cells. This is one of the first studies to test whether acupuncture and bee-venom acupuncture can help Parkinson’s.
Many of the symptoms from Parkinson’s develop when brain cells that make the brain chemical dopamine are destroyed. Why this happens isn’t clear.
Researcher Seong-Uk Park, MD, says acupuncture may help by increasing dopamine levels. Acupuncture may also enhance the effects of the Parkinson’s drug L-dopa and lessen the drug’s side effects, he says. Park is with the Stroke and Neurological Disorders Center, Kyung Hee University Hospital, Gangdong, Seoul, Korea.
The study's results are important, as 70% of people in some countries use complementary therapies to help treat Parkinson’s disease, says Louis Tan, MD. Tan is with the National Neuroscience Institute in Singapore and was not involved in the study.
The study was presented at the recent 18th International Congress of Parkinson’s Disease and Movement Disorders.
The treatment involves injecting bee venom under the skin at an acupuncture point. It’s thought this may help enhance and prolong the effects of stimulation of acupuncture points.
"So the mechanisms of bee-venom acupuncture might be similar to those of acupuncture. Or there could be another effect due to the bee venom itself," Park says.
Tan suggests that bee venom could act like botulinum toxin (the toxin in Botox), causing a temporary paralysis of the muscles. Some Parkinson’s symptoms include muscle spasms that can cause pain and trouble moving. Bee venom may help relax these muscles.
In the study, 35 patients with Parkinson's disease who had been on a stable dose of medication for at least a month were randomly assigned to three groups. One group received acupuncture, another received bee-venom acupuncture, and the third group received neither. The treatment was repeated twice a week for 8 weeks.
Symptoms improved in those who received bee-venom acupuncture or regular acupuncture. There were no serious side effects in either group. One person who received bee-venom acupuncture complained of itchiness. Those who received no treatment had no change in their symptoms.
The results are promising, but more research is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions, Park says. He says a second study is now under way, and it's expected to be completed later this year.
"Acupuncture is quite commonly used for Parkinson's disease, but hard evidence of benefit is lacking," Tan says.
With reporting by Sue Hughes, Medscape Medical News.
These findings were presented at a medical conference. They should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.