Brown recluse spider bites seem to be on the rise -- and so does their severity.
Allopathic -- that is, "Western" medicine, has its treatment of these bites, but there are also herbal and other "alternative" methods of treating them.
Whether alternative methods work depends on a number of factors, such as an individual's biochemistry, the point at which treatment begins, the severity of envenomation and the type of treatment used.
For Betty Boggus of Berryville, her alternative treatment always works. For DonE Allen of Eureka Springs, nothing he tried worked.
Boggus uses a stun gun to treat brown recluse bites, wasp stings, tick bites and other insect bites.
Her stun gun is the kind sold on the internet for self-protection. It uses a 9-volt battery and packs a 100,000-volt punch.
Boggus, who has lived in Carroll County for 40 years, received her first brown recluse bite in 1992 while working in her garage.
"I didn't know it was a recluse bite," she said. "It was on my ankle. I thought it was phlebitis. It was itching furiously, and by evening it was very, very painful. I saw a doctor after four days."
The doctor gave her a shot of Vitamin C and instructed her to take 1,000 milligrams of Vitamin C every hour and elevate her leg.
Boggus said she had no necrosis or fever with that bite, and it cleared up, though she ended up with a lump.
Later she had a second bite. She was working for Mid-America Mission at Woodland Acres at the time.
"My pastor told me about the stun gun," she said. "He got one for himself and his wife."
She heard stories about how the missionaries in foreign countries had used high-voltage, low-amperage electricity such as that from small engine batteries on snakebites.
"The director had a recluse bite, and he went out and pulled the plug on the electric lawnmower and used it on his bite. By morning the pain was gone and he had no more reaction from it," Boggus said.
Then she got a second bite, and had purchased a stun gun to use on it. Since then she has used the stun gun not only on her own bites from spiders, ticks and wasps, but on those of family and friends.
"The New Tribes Mission uses this for snakebite," Boggus said. "We had a missionary out there, and they carry this kind of thing. One man out in the jungle was bitten by a snake and they used it on him, and it cleared it up."
If it sounds farfetched, there is science to support Boggus' claim. A doctor in Texas, Stan Abrams, has treated hundreds of patients with a stun gun for brown recluse bite.
Abrams, who is now in his 80s, has been in practice since 1973, in both family and emergency medicine.
His Web site, spiderbitetreatment.com, outlines facts about the brown recluse spider, treatment with a stun gun, and testimonials from patients.
He also cites two articles from the Lancet, an international medical journal, that address treatment with a stun gun for snakebite.
In another article online, a review of the literature on stun gun use for venomous bites, the authors cite several physicians who have used it with success, but also cite clinical studies of venom injected into mice, rats and dogs that still died after stun gun treatment.
Although the authors conclude there is not sufficient evidence to consider the treatment successful, others point out the studies were flawed because of the subjects chosen.
These are Abrams' protocol and comments:
"Treatment consists of using a modified stun gun that will produce 25 kilovolts at less than 350 milliamps. Because of the deep penetration of the venom of the BR spider it is necessary to shock 'through the tissue' rather than surface shock only. This is accomplished by means of a jumper cable attached to one pole of the stun gun that will reach to the opposite side of the extremity. The central area as well as the surrounding area of erythema is shocked 6 to 8 times.
"This is like getting a shock from an electric fence and is tolerated quite well by most all patients. Patients should be observed for up to two hours since a sudden release of toxins and foreign proteins may result in some renal impairment. It is advisable to obtain a urinalysis several hours after treatment to check for hemoglobin and myoglobin.
"The mechanism of action is still debatable. Some feel that it inactivates the proteolytic enzymes (in the venom) and some feel that it gives the cell wall a higher energy state that inhibits the attack by the enzymes. It probably is a combination of the two."
Abrams also includes instructions to physicians.
For one man, DonE Allen, alternative remedies did not work on his recent brown recluse bite, and he suffered severe necrosis which required surgery.
Allen is a man who eats healthy, does not smoke and gets regular exercise by working outdoors as a gardener for the Eureka Springs Parks Department.
He did not know about the stun gun but said he tried several alternative remedies for a bite which occurred on his lower leg while gardening.
He waited several days to go to the doctor because he kept hoping the treatments would work.
On the advice of several local friends who had used alternative remedies with success, he tried cayenne pepper, charcoal, plantain salve, lavender oil, Vitamin C and black salve, among others.
Interestingly, Boggus said she has also used cayenne pepper mixed in honey, but with success.
"You name it, I tried it," Allen said. "Nothing worked, and the wound kept getting larger and larger. My skin turned black and flesh began sloughing off."
He said he went to three doctors for help, and they wouldn't help him. One sent him away with blood and pus running down his leg.
Allen eventually went to the Mercy Wound Care Center in Rogers, where they did help him. Dr. William Swindell treated the wound by cutting away the necrotic flesh, packing and bandaging it. Allen was given antibiotics. Eventually his bite began to heal, but not before he went through a horrible ordeal where for a time he couldn't walk.
"You have to debride the dead tissue," said Dr. Swindell. "Sometimes you have to keep working to get that out of there. There are different debriders, some enzymatic."
Allen said he told Dr. Swindell about all the alternative remedies he had used. The doctor was sympathetic and open-minded but used allopathic methods to treat the wound.
Both Swindell and Abrams note that secondary infection from staph or other bacteria can cause major problems in brown recluse bites.
"There are all kinds of bacteria on the skin," Swindell said. "Anytime there's a break in the skin, bacteria can get inside."
He said with a recluse bite that necroses, the immune system is affected because the tissue is dead, so there's no blood flow to the area to heal it.
"Brown recluse bites don't typically cause a systemic reaction, but secondary infection -- staph -- can cause that."
That is what antibiotics treat, he said.
He said he does not use steroids. Some doctors will give steroids if there is severe swelling, but steroids can aggravate the risk of infection, he said.
There are so many factors in the severity and reaction of a patient to a brown recluse bite that what works for one person may not work for the next.
People are advised to get to a doctor well-versed in treating these bites if alternative treatments are not showing visible success within several hours or symptoms are worsening.
According to one local practitioner, plantain should be mashed and applied directly to the bite, with a loose bandage over it, and changed several times a day. The plant draws the poison to the surface and prevents necrosis, helping the bite heal with only a small scar or even no scar.
Other remedies reported to this author to have worked on venomous bites (including snakebite) include cayenne pepper and honey, bentonite or montmorillonite clay, fresh garlic clove, MMS, colloidal silver, Miracle II, ice packs and homeopathic remedies.
Another doctor, Kenneth Burton, has reported success with using a nitroglycerine patch on brown recluse bites. His article can be found at geocities.com/Yosemite/Forest/2021/recluse/intro.html.
For more information on brown recluse bite treatments, including alternative remedies, these Web sites may be helpful: spiderbitetreatment.com and eytonsearth.org/brown-recluse-bite-clay.html
(Ed. note: For the author's own experiences with brown recluse bites and alternative treatments, see Kate Lucariello's blog, "Anomalies," on carrollconews.com.