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Understanding Electromagnetic Treatments

In addition to immediate pain relief, the administration of electricity or its derivatives may assist tissue healing and regeneration by cell stimulation, removal of edema and inflammatory mediators, and angiogenesis.
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Basically, a pain site is a wound under the skin that is simply not visible. The pain site will become warm to the touch as inflammation, which is biologic waste heated by electricity, evolves. Interestingly, opioid receptors propagate in an inflammatory pain site, and it is theorized that these receptors are there to attract circulating endorphins to enhance the inflammatory response and relieve pain5,6 (see Figure 1). One of the best exhibits of inflammatory pain sites can be seen as “hot spots” on thermography (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Inflamed pain sitesFigure 2. Inflamed pain sites that contain pooled electricity and biologic waste from injured nerves and blood and lymph vessels appear as red, “hot” spots on a thermogram. This thermogram shows typical painful osteoarthritis of the hand.

What is not known, however, is whether patients with severe pain due to severe, intractable nerve damage retain electricity throughout their entire bodies. Although there are a lack of case studies in the literature, some patients with severe, intractable pain anecdotally relate that they retain electricity and, in effect, become a capacitor filled with electricity. These patients relate stories of burning out light bulbs, computers, and wristwatches when they touch them. They can’t touch other people without causing a severe shock, and they may complain that they can’t kiss their spouse.

It is unclear how the body naturally excretes its electricity. A reasonable belief is that the body excretes its electricity at its distal points such as the extremities, earlobes, and nose. It is generally assumed that ground and gravity naturally pull some body electricity downward to escape through the soles of the feet into the ground. Some patients with pain, such as those with severely damaged clumps of nerves as found in the neck, dura, or lumbar-sacral regions, could possibly retain and emit a large amount of electricity. The question, however, is whether the emitted electricity is retained in the entire body or if it only pools around the injured nerves. Also, is it retained, and what are the consequences of retention?

Magnets Mobilize Electricity

The effects of magnets and magnetic energy on the body are still shrouded, to some extent, in mystery. We have known since the scientific work of Faraday in 1831 that a magnet brought perpendicular to an electric current in a wire will depolarize the ends of the wire and cause the electric current to move.2,3 Because pain is, to a great extent, caused by “pooled” or “trapped” electricity, a magnet or magnetic energy wave brought near a pain site causes pooled electricity to mobilize. Magnets also likely attract iron in red blood cells and increase blood flow into a pain site, which promotes mobilization of pooled electricity and inflammatory mediators.

History of Pain Relief

Pain relief by electricity is legend. In ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome, electric eels were used to treat arthralgias and migraines.7 In 50 AD, Scribonies Largus wrote that “for any sort of foot gout, when the pain comes on, it is good to put a living black torpedo fish under his feet while standing on the beach, not dry but one which the sea washes, until he feels that his whole foot and ankle are numb up to the knees.”

Among the first electrical instruments used for pain treatment was the “Baghdad Battery.” This was a copper plate around an iron rod placed at the core inside a small clay pot. Water inside the pot would generate a low-level current, which could be placed over a painful area. These batteries date to about 225 to 640 AD. An elementary battery known as the Leyden jar was used between the 16th and 18th centuries for pain treatment. The Leyden jar is named after the University of Leyden in Holland. It had a metal coating, usually tin or silver, on both sides of the glass, with an iron rod at its center. When it was filled with water, an electric current was generated.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, opened free clinics in the mid-18th century around London and treated more than 20 types of illness by electrifying patients with a friction machine, which generated sparks of electricity. He spoke enthusiastically about the benefits of electrical therapy, saying, “Certainly it comes the nearest to universal medicine of any yet known in the world.”

Today’s electric current instruments are truly remarkable advances. They range from handheld units for at-home use to implanted devices that can be patient regulated on a demand basis.

Electric Currents Promote Regeneration and Healing

Temporary pain relief produced by an electric current device is well established, but it is less widely known that electric currents and their derivatives may heal and regenerate tissue. The seminal clinical discovery and application of this phenomenon is the bone stimulator based on the monumental work of the orthopedic scientist Robert Becker, MD (1923-2008).1 This underappreciated researcher did dozens of experiments on nerve regeneration in frogs and salamanders while a professor at the Veteran’s Hospital attached to Syracuse University. Among his many scientific papers, evidence can be found that electricity can influence the regeneration of bone, cartilage, and nerves. Becker’s work is well summarized in his 1985 book The Body Electric: Foundation of Life.1

In his book, Dr. Becker describes an experiment conducted by the Russian scientist A. M. Sinyukhin of Lomonosov State University in Moscow that illustrates how electrical currents produce healing. Sinyukhin cut off one branch from each of a series of tomato plants. At the wound site, he measured the electricity emanating from the wound, which was a stream of electrons (negative charge). A “current of injury” is emitted from all damaged nerves in animals, as first determined by Galvani in the 1790s.4 After a week, a callus formed over the cut surface, and a new branch began to form. In addition, the electric current changed its polarity to positive. As the positive current increased, cells in the area more than doubled their metabolic rate, became more acetic, and produced more vitamin C. Amazingly, and most cogently for pain practitioners, Sinyukhin applied an electric current to some of the plants. The electricity-assisted plants restored their branches up to 3 times faster than the control plants. The currents were small—only 2 to 3 microamperes administered for 5 days. Larger amounts of electricity killed the cells and had no growth-enhancing effect. It is worth noting that there is now a great interest in using microcurrents to treat painful conditions, and there is a growing number of reports showing good results.

How Does Electricity Relieve Pain?

If one administers an electric current or one of its derivatives to a pain site, pain relief may occur within seconds or minutes.8-13 The reason for this is not entirely known. The prevailing thinking propagated by Melzak and Wall in 1965 is that administered electric currents block the gates that control afferent and efferent impulses in the spinal cord, thus preventing pain impulses from reaching the brain. Others have postulated that endogenous endorphins are released, giving pain relief.9

Last updated on: November 30, 2011