Honey and children’s tonsils could hold key to easing post-surgery pain for thousands


When three-year-old Onyx had his tonsils removed during routine surgery, his mother Kaylah Sadler never imagined his recovery would be so painful.

“It was rough, very painful for him, and that was quite hard to see,” Ms Sadler said.

“His whole personality changed, he was just not himself — tired, sore and clingy.”

About 40,000 Australian children undergo tonsillectomy surgery every year and the pain they experience during recovery is severe and extremely common.

Patients like Onyx are commonly prescribed pain medication such as paracetamol, anti-inflammatories and even the opiate-based painkiller oxycodone to manage the symptoms.

But a new clinical trial being led by the Perth Children’s Hospital (PCH) is studying the effectiveness of West Australian honey as a natural pain relief option for children who have undergone the procedure.

“I was apprehensive to be part of the trial at first but when I found out it was honey, I was all for it,” Ms Sadler said.

“I’m from New Zealand and a lot of the old ancestors used a lot of honey so I know there’s good healing properties.”

The clinical trial was setback due to the suspension of elective surgeries at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year.(Kate Stephens: ABC South West)

Honey as medicine

The PCH study is being conducted in partnership with the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the Telethon Kids Institute, under the direction of consultant anaesthetist Britta Regli-von Ungern-Sternberg.

The trial will gather data from 400 patients receiving standard pain treatment after surgery, with half of the young patients also consuming either Marri Honey or West Australian Manuka honey at least six times a day.

The rest of the patients will receive artificial honey as a placebo or no honey at all.

“The idea is to improve their pain control by giving them a non-medical product,” Professor Regli-von Ungern-Sternberg said.

“Honey has been used for hundreds of years, even the Egyptians used it as a medicinal product.

“We know it has antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties … we have the most amazing honey in WA that is exported all around the world … so that’s why we chose these two honeys.”

Perth Children's Hospital anaesthetist Professor Britta Regli-von Ungern-Sternberg at Perth Children's Hospital in August 2020.
Professor Ungern-Sternberg says tonsillectomy procedures may be one of most common surgeries performed on children, but it is also one of the most painful.(Jessica Hayes: ABC Rural)

Hundreds of tonsils needed

Professor Regli-von Ungern-Sternberg said the trial has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic after the State Government suspended non-essential elective surgeries earlier this year.

It is hoped the study will be concluded by early 2021, despite the uncertainty surrounding the global health crisis.

“We currently have around 115 patients at the moment and we need 400 in total,” she said.

“So we need more children to take a spoon of honey after surgery.

Professor Regli-von Ungern-Sternberg said it was unlikely that honey could ever replace conventional pain medications.

“You’ll need a combination of both, it’s important not to just go the natural way, that would definitely not be sufficient,” she said.

“These children have a significant amount of pain and have had major surgery so we’ll always need basic analgesia.

Honey researcher Dr Connie Locher at UWA in August 2020.
Dr Locher says the trial may also help determine if different varieties of honey provide more effective pain relief than others.(Jessica Hayes: ABC Rural)

‘The more research, the more we discover’: pharmacists

UWA honey pharmacist Connie Locher said the data collected in the trial would also help the WA honey industry better understand the properties of its product.

“We’ve incorporated two different honeys because hopefully we can find out not just if honey is effective or better than the standard treatments,” she said.

“But it’s also to see if there’s a different outcome between the different types of honey.

“Different honeys have different chemical composition — there may be some honeys that have very strong antibacterial activities, others have very strong antioxidant properties.

Dr Locher said once all the data was collected further research would try to pinpoint if, and exactly why, certain honeys performed differently.

“A lot of people appreciate honey for the taste but there is actually a lot more to it,” she said.

“We’re just trying to establish some basic information about the Manuka and Marri first and then hopefully we can look at more honeys.”

Bee Industry Council of WA chairman Brendon Fewster standing in front of hives at Muchea in July 2020.
Brendon Fewster says if the medical research proves the scientific benefits of honey as a pain relief option, it could be a major opportunity for beekeepers.(Jessica Hayes: ABC Rural)

‘Huge opportunity’ for WA beekeepers

Chairperson of the Bee Industry Council of WA (BICWA) Brendon Fewster said having strong scientific evidence to support health claims would be a significant opportunity for the state’s beekeepers.

“For the average Joe beekeeper like me, any positive reinforcement that honey is doing us good would be great,” he said.

“Hopefully, we can get doctors out there using and endorsing this product if the trial is successful.



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