Electricity plays a prominent role in modern medicine. The charged paddles used to jolt the heart back into action are a common sight in emergency rooms everywhere. Electroencephalograms (EEGs) record electrical brain waves and electrocardiograms (EKGs) read the rhythms of the heart. Electrical devices ranging from the common x-ray to the gigantic MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine routinely give us an accurate diagnosis.
The contraptions and procedures promoted under the rubric of “energy medicine” are, however, an entirely different matter. They are either extremely controversial or totally unproven. Some are simply electrified versions of other alternative therapies such as acupuncture. Others are the last remnants of a fascination with “black box” cures that extends from the dawn of the electrical age through the present.
Of all the electrical therapies currently available, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is the closest to adoption in the mainstream. It can be used for any type of localized physical pain, although it is most commonly advocated for arthritis, sciatica, neuralgia, and chronic back pain. It is sometimes used after knee, hip, or lower back surgery (usually in combination with other analgesic treatments). And it has also been used for dental pain, jaw muscle pain, cancer pain, angina pectoris, menstrual pain, migraine, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, pain from nerve damage, musculoskeletal trauma, and the pain of shingles.
All other forms of energy therapy remain either untested or unverified. Among the leading examples, electroacupuncture and auricular acupuncture (acupuncture limited to the ear) are advocated for treatment of disorders throughout the body. Similarly, a device called the MORA delivers electromagnetic energy to various acupuncture points, purportedly relieving headaches, migraines, muscular aches and pains, circulation disorders, and skin disease. Another variation on this theme–electroacupuncture biofeedback–is promoted as a diagnostic tool capable of revealing the presence of toxins, food allergies, and “imbalances.”
Moving beyond acupuncture, the Electro-Acuscope promises to relieve pain by running current through damaged tissues. It is generally applied to such conditions as muscle spasms, migraines, jaw pain, bursitis, arthritis, surgical incisions, sprains and strains, neuralgia, shingles, and bruises. Microcurrent Electrical Therapy (MET) is also promoted for pain relief in the muscles and joints, and is said to speed wound healing as well. A device called the Light Beam Generator is advocated for healing throughout the body.
Other unproven devices attempt to use sound and radio waves therapeutically. Cymatic instruments, supposedly tuned to the “frequency” of various tissues, are said to diagnose aberrations and restore the tissues to health. Likewise, the Sound Probe is employed to kill viruses, bacteria, and fungi. A device called the Diapulse employs radio waves to reduce swelling and inflammation following surgery.
In almost all cases, there is little if any published research in reputable journals to back up the claims made for these instruments. It’s conceivable that some of them may actually be effective, but the odds are not strongly in their favor.
How the Treatments Are Done
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. These treatments are administered with a small electronic unit that sends pulsed currents to a set of electrodes stuck to the skin. The electrodes are usually placed near the painful area (often on either side), over a main nerve leading to the painful area, on the spine one or two segments above the spinal nerve receiving the pain, or at acupuncture points. Treatments are typically given 3 to 4 times per day for 30 to 40 minutes a session, or intermittently at the physician’s and user’s discretion.
Electroacupuncture. Typically, the therapist inserts 4 to 20 thin disposable needles into the patient’s skin, either directly into the area of pain or into traditional acupuncture points. Once the needles are in place, they are stimulated with a low-level electrical charge. The treatment generally takes 15 to 30 minutes.
Auricular Acupuncture. Practitioners of this form of therapy believe that each area of the ear is linked to a corresponding part of the body. The therapist may apply gentle pressure to the part of the ear associated with the problem, either by hand, or with small acupuncture needles and a weak electrical current or laser or infrared light. Electrical therapy entails a very brief, 10-second burst of current at about 100 microamperes or less.
Microcurrent Electrical Therapy. For these treatments, electrodes are placed over the painful area on opposite sides of the body, so that the current will run through it. Treatment time varies with the size of the injured or diseased site. The effect of the treatments is said to be cumulative, so at least three treatments are typically needed before pain relief sets in.
What Treatment Hopes to Accomplish
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. The pulsed currents delivered in TENS are believed to “drown out” pain signals in the affected nerves, thus preventing the pain message from reaching the brain. The method is based on the “gate theory” of pain, which hypothesizes that pain impulses must pass through a “gate” in the spinal cord. TENS units are also believed to stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
Although TENS has been intensively tested, its degree of efficacy is still a subject of debate. While a large 1990 study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine pronounced TENS ineffective, several other trials have deemed it capable of relieving pain, although it may be more helpful for mild to moderate discomfort than for severe pain. The type of tissue may also be a factor; one study suggests that TENS works on skin and connective tissue but not on muscle or the outer layers of the bones.
Electroacupuncture. Also called electro-acutherapy, this form of treatment operates on essentially the same principles as regular acupuncture, with the addition of a weak electrical current applied to the needles. As in other forms of acupuncture, the goal is to correct purported blockages in the flow of the life force qi, thus restoring balance and health.
Advocates of electroacupuncture say that it’s better suited to surgical anesthesia than manual therapy, since it reaches a large number of acupoints simultaneously. (However, use of any sort of acupuncture as the sole painkiller during surgery is a feat that’s rarely attempted.)
Auricular Acupuncture. The scientific basis of regular acupuncture has never been explained, and acupuncture limited solely to the ear is doubly mysterious. A few studies in the early 1980s–including one Italian trial with 724 patients–claimed support for auricular therapy. However, the technique was discredited by the American Medical Association in 1984 when a study of 36 pain patients failed to show a significant difference between those receiving the therapy and those receiving a fake.
Electroacupuncture Biofeedback. Employing a device called the Dermatron, advocates of this procedure attempt to diagnose illness by measuring electrical resistance at various acupuncture points that correspond to specific organs and tissues. An abnormal reading at any particular point is the signal to check the other points associated with the organ in question. Such devices have thus far been approved only on an experimental basis in the U.S.
Cymatic Instruments. According to proponents, each organ and tissue in the body emits sounds at a particular harmonic frequency, which can be recognized by the cymatic device. Furthermore, it’s said that any disturbances can be remedied by bathing the site of the problem with sounds tuned to the frequency pattern found in the organ’s healthy state. The existence of such frequencies has not, however, been accepted by mainstream science.
The Diapulse. This device emits radio waves that are said to produce short, intense electromagnetic pulses capable of penetrating tissue to improve blood flow, reduce pain, and improve healing. Mainstream critics charge that its value has yet to be verified in independent scientific tests.
The Electro-Acuscope. This device is said to reduce pain, not by stimulating the affected nerves as in TENS, but by promoting tissue repair. As the treatments progress, the current is adjusted to alter the resistance from the damaged tissue and thus accelerate recovery. Again, the treatments await validation by independent scientific tests.
The Light Beam Generator. According to its proponents, this instrument works by radiating light photons that assist in restoring the cells’ normal energy state, thus promoting healing. Mainstream critics are dubious.
Microcurrent Electrical Therapy. Proponents of this therapy believe that electrical stimulation of a wound or injured muscle promotes healing. MET is one of the more intensively researched of the energy therapies. To date, however, there is no consensus regarding its effectiveness.
The MORA. This instrument is supposed to receive electromagnetic signals directly from the body, detect any aberrant wave patterns, and replace them with “normal” waves delivered back to the patient via the acupoints that correspond to the diseased area. As in traditional Chinese acupuncture, this is thought to correct imbalances in the flow of the life force, and thus the disorder. To grant this machine credibility, you must assume the manufacturers know which waves are “normal” and which are not, that sending “normalized” waves into the body will correct them, and that these electromagnetic maneuvers can affect the undetectable life force posited by Chinese medicine. There is no accepted scientific evidence for any of these contentions.
The Sound Probe. According to its advocates, this device emits a pulsed tone of three alternating frequencies that can destroy any foreign matter, such as viruses and bacteria, that is not in resonance with the body.
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
In general, people with pacemakers and those who are pregnant should avoid all forms of electrotherapy unless their doctor approves.
In addition, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation can’t be used during electrocardiography or heart monitoring, and while the patient is running a fever. The electrodes should not be applied near the heart, head, front of the neck, or eyes. Although a few studies have examined use of TENS for labor pains, the electrodes should not be placed on the abdomen, because safety in pregnancy has not been proven.
All forms of electroacupuncture should be strictly avoided during pregnancy, since there’s a danger of triggering premature uterine contractions. Techniques employing needles can’t be used on people with bleeding disorders. It’s also best to avoid this form of therapy if you have a fever or any sort of irregular heartbeat.
What Side Effects May Occur?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, the most thoroughly studied of these therapies, appears to have no side effects. The situation with the other forms of treatment is really unknown. Remember, however, that with most of them you are playing with electricity.
How to Choose a Therapist
Most of these devices have never undergone rigorous clinical testing, and many lack FDA approval. Be extremely wary of therapists that propose their use. Check the practitioner’s credentials carefully, and try to get a second opinion from a doctor you trust.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, the most widely accepted of these therapies, is available from many physicians–particularly those specializing in pain management, physical medicine and rehabilitation, sports medicine, or orthopedic surgery. The other forms of treatment are typically offered by acupuncturists, physical therapists, rehabilitation therapists, chiropractors, and naturopathic physicians.
When Should Treatment Stop?
Virtually all of these therapies promise to relieve pain or correct a specific disorder. If you see no improvement, drop the treatment and move on. Pain treatments such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation can be stopped as soon as the pain subsides. Microcurrent electrical therapy should be discontinued as soon as improvement seems to be leveling off. No matter how short the duration of treatment, additional therapy will provide no further benefit.
See a Conventional Doctor If…
If you have pain of unknown origin, it is extremely important to see a conventional physician for an initial diagnosis before undergoing any energy therapy. Pain is frequently the warning of a serious condition which electrotherapy such as TENS could temporarily mask.
Do not rely on electroacupuncture biofeedback, cymatic instruments, or the MORA to provide you with a firm diagnosis. Seeking a second opinion is your wisest course.