The Basis for Microcurrent Electrical Therapy in Conventional Medical Practice
Joseph M. Mercola, DO and Daniel L. Kirsch, PhD, DAAPM
Sponsored by the American College for Advancement in Medicine
Volume 8 Number 2 Summer 1995 Journal of Advancement in Medicine Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 1995
The Basis for Microcurrent Electrical Therapy in Conventional Medical Practice
Joseph M. Mercola, DO and Daniel L. Kirsch, PhD, DAAPM
ABSTRACT: The use of electricity in medicine is not new. Clinicians used it over 150 years ago to treat non-union bone fractures. Electomedicine and nu- trition, abandoned early in this century, have been recently revived. Most physicians are unaware of their therapeutic benefits. Electrotherapy, espe- cially microcurrent electrical! therapy (MET) is useful for a variety of clinical conditions. Indeed, it may be the best treatment for many pain-related disor- ders, providing fast relief of symptoms and quickly promoting healing. It has significantly less side effects than drugs in chronic conditions. The more ad-
vanced MET devices can often demonstrate effectiveness with a simple two minute office procedure, allowing validity to be quickly assessed.
Pain is a serious problem that only recently has been getting the at- tention that it deserves. It and its associated symptoms have a potent economic impact. The Interagency Committee of New Therapies for Pain and Discomfort estimates that chronic pain affects more than 40 million Americans and costs the US economy over $65-70 billion an- nually. At least 10% of Americans suffer chronic, handicapping pain. The average chronic pain patient has suffered for seven years and has had 3 to 5 surgical operations, spending $50,000 to $100,000 or more. Lost productivity due to pain is estimated at over 700 million work- days per year (1).
Although pain may be an important warning of a disease process, it
Address correspondence to Joseph M. Mercola, D.O., 1443 West Schaumburg Road, Schaumburg, IL 60194-4065. 107 © 1995 Human Sciences Press, Inc. 108 JOURNAL OF ADVANCEMENT IN MEDICINE
often has limited diagnostic value and remains a difficult problem for the physician. A recent study (2) examined visits to eclectic and alter- native medicine practitioners. It reported that non-reimbursable costs were about $10.3 billion in one year, comparable to the $12.8 billion hospital expenses during the same time period. In 1990, Americans made an estimated 425 million visits to these eclectic practitioners, while making only 388 million visits to all US primary care physi- cians. Many patients cite the side-effects and short-term relief of drug therapy as the primary reason that they seek alternative medical care. New development in electromedical technology offers physicians an effective treatment for pain-related disorders for many of them.
Traditional Therapy and TENS
Electrical modalities have been used for many years to contro] both acute and chronic pain. Clinicians also routinely use neuromuscular electrical stimulators to rehabilitate injured athletes (3,4). Trans- cutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and other similar de- vices use a mild form of electrically induced pain to block the body’s ability to perceive the pain that is being treated (5,6). When patients receive TENS at unmasked low frequencies (eight pulses per second or less) their production of endorphins may increase, thus producing temporary relief, possible in approximately 50 per cent of people. The effect of TENS is believed to stimulate A-beta pain-suppressing nerve fibers to overwhelm chronic pain-carrying C fibers (7). Similar results can be achieved by repeatedly tapping the painful areas with a blunt object. Massage, ice and heat relieve pain this way. The ampere (amp) is the measure of electron movement or current past a fixed point over time. Interferential, TENS, and high-voltage pulsed galvanic stimulators deliver currents in the milliamp range, stimulation which generally exceeds nerve firing thresholds, resulting in sensation rang- ing from a gentle tingling to intense muscle throbbing.
Traditional TENS only works if the current is strong enough to feel, using a current up to 80 milliamps. Patients are advised to set the current at the maximum comfortable tolerance, but the nervous sys- tem gradually accommodates to this high level of current, causing tolerance similar to that of chemical analgesics. Increasing the cur- rent causes mild electrical burns in about one third of the patients. The technique provides no significant residual effect. JOSEPH M. MERCOLA AND DANIEL L. KIRSCH = 109
Microcurrent Electrical Stimulation (MET)
Microcurrent electrical therapy represents a significant improvement in rapid pain control and acceleration of healing. It uses current in the microampere range, 1000 times less than that of TENS and below sensation threshold. The pulse width, or length of time that the cur- rent is delivered with a microcurrent device is much longer than pre- vious technologies. A typical microcurrent pulse is about 0.5 seconds, which is 2500 times longer than the pulse in a typical TENS unit and a good microcurrent unit has approximately ten times the electronic circuitry of a TENS unit.
Unlike TENS, MET is usually administered through hand held probes positioned so that current flows between them, through the painful area, for ten seconds. The vast majority of pain problems can be treated with less than 10 applications of 10 second probe treat- ments. Many patients are free of their pain in less than two minutes and there is generally a significant residual effect, often lasting from at least 8 hours to as long as 3 weeks or more (8).
The first homecare MET stimulator was introduced in 1982.* It provides at least the same results as more expensive models (9). It is a pocket-size device for home use and patients find it easy to learn to use it, as necessary, to control their pain.
How Microcurrent Works
MET works because of its ability to stimulate cellular physiology and growth. One classic study (10) showed that it could increase ATP gen- eration by almost 500%. Increasing current actually decreased the results. This study also demonstrated its ability to enhance amino acid transport and protein synthesis.
One can see an illustration of the true therapeutic effect of MET through the mechanism in which trauma affects the electrical poten- tial of damaged cells (11). The injured area has a higher electrical resistance than the surrounding tissue. This results in decreased electrical conductance through the injured area and decreased cellu- lar capacitance (12), leading to impairment of the healing process and inflammation.
Correct application of MET to an injured site augments the endog-
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enous current flow, allowing cells in the traumatized area to regain their capacitance. Resistance is reduced, allowing bioelectricity to flow through and reestablish homeostasis. This process helps to initi- ate and perpetuate the many biochemical reactions that occur in heal- ing. Muscular spasm, occurring as a reaction to trauma, causes re- duction in blood supply, resulting in local hypoxia, accumulation of noxious metabolites, and pain. This, in turn, leads to reduction of ATP synthesis. Thus, MET stimulation results in replenishment of ATP (10).
Rapid Pain Management
One of the greatest values of MET is in pain control (8,9,12). It also reduces inflammation, edema and swelling, increases range of mo- tion, strength, and muscle relaxation, and accelerates wound heal- ing (13,14). It is exceptionally useful in soft tissue injuries, such as sprains (15,16), wounds, post-surgical trauma, and particularly in treatment of long-term residual pain due to post-surgical scars.
It is effective for treatment of headaches, temporomandibular joint syndrome, neuropathies, arthritis, bursitis and tendonitis. Clinical experience indicates that it is an adjunctive therapy in earaches, sore throats, toothache, sinus congestion, viral or allergic conjunctivitis, post-herpetic neuralgia, skin ulcers, post-CVA spasticity, and com- pression neuropathies such as carpal tunnel syndrome. It has also proven useful in preventing the delayed muscle soreness that is com- mon after heavy exercise (17). Improvement in post-exercise muscle fatigue was achieved by applying the current over the exercise mus- cles for twenty minutes after exercise. In a minority of patients MET does not work or only provides brief palliative relief. Its full potential is yet to be defined.
It has been used to control hypertension (18), failed back syndrome (19,20), arthritis (21), Raynaud’s phenomenon (22,23), tinnitus (24- 26), and post-anesthesia emesis (27). Dentists have used it as a sub- stitute for local anesthesia (28,29) and to control pain associated with orthodontic treatment (30).
Intractable pain in patients with head and neck cancer has been suc- cessfully treated with MET, even in some cases that were morphine JOSEPH M. MERCOLA AND DANIEL L. KIRSCH 111
resistant (8,12). After only 10 minutes of MET, pain relief lasted from 8 hours to more than 3 weeks. The technique has been used suc- cessfully at the University of Texas MD Anderson Center (31).
About 5% of long-bone fractures in the United States result in non- union (32). Electrical stimulation of the fracture provides a non-surgi- cal option for repair. It is also being investigated for use in osteone- crosis and osteoporosis (33).
Using electrical therapy to heal non-union fractures is not new. It was first reported over 150 years ago (34,35). At the turn of the cen- tury, however, a number of medical charlatans, using electrotherapy, forced the Carnegie Foundation to have the Flexner commission re- view its use. In 1910, the Flexner Report relegated electrotherapy to a scientifically unsupportable position, causing it to fade from medical practice. Further exploration of the technique was reported by Yasuda and Fukuda (36) who found that mechanically stressed bone produces a small negative electrical direct current that stimulates bone produc- tion.
Becker (37) performed research that led to applying electrotherapy to the healing of bone fractures (38). By 1976, over 100 articles had been published describing the effects of electricity on bone growth and repair in laboratory animals and in humans (39). As of 1990, more than 100,000 cases of non-union fractures and aseptic necrosis have been successfully treated with electrotherapy (40).
Several methods are available to stimulate bone growth. All require 3 to 6 months of treatment, and have similar contraindications. A gap in the fracture greater than half the diameter of the bone or synovial pseudoarthrosis will result in failure (33).
The first clinical trial of direct current surgical implant in humans in the United States (41) achieved results in 4 months in a large per- centage of cases (42). Stainless steel electrodes with 5-20 microamps of current produced the best growth, while current above twenty mi- croamps actually caused bone to die (43).
A noninvasive alternative is inductive stimulation, which works by creating a magnetic field around the non-union site. Pulsing electro- magnetic fields (PEMFs) are induced by a treatment coil or trans- ducer. These devices are battery powered and portable. Patients wear them for 3 to 10 hours a day and treatment lasts about 6 months. 112) JOURNAL OF ADVANCEMENT IN MEDICINE
Many investigators report 90% healing rates with this method (44). Although PEMFs contain both electrical and magnetic fields, the bone remodeling processes appear to respond mostly to the electrical field component. The magnetic field contributes less benefit to the process (45).
Spectral analysis of PEMF frequencies shows that they range from 1-250,000 Hz. As indicated above, the electrical, not the magnetic en- ergy, is responsible for producing bone growth. Investigators tested 150, 75, and 15 Hz sinusoidal electrical field effects on the prevention of osteoporosis (46). They found that the 150 Hz field did not increase bone mass, but inhibited normal bone loss associated with disuse. The 75 Hz field increased bone mass by 5%, while the 15 Hz field actually increased it by 20%. The energy represented by this frequency is less than 0.1% of the PEMF field. This strongly suggests that the vast majority of the energy introduced by PEMF has no beneficial effects on bone regrowth and it is also probable that even lower frequencies, like the 0.5 Hz field produced by MET would provide even more im- pressive results.
Several devices use capacitive-coupled stimulation which produces an electrical field at the fracture site. They are 9-volt battery units attached to the skin over the fracture site. It has the advantage of not requiring precise placement of the electrodes and can be administered 24 hours a day. Unlike inductive coupling, patients using this treat- ment can have a full weight-bearing cast and this tremendously en- hances patient compliance.
The first capacitive-coupling devices used a 60 KHz sinusoidal wave form and delivered a current of 7 to 10 milliamps (47,48), but subsequent work suggested that non-sinusoidal wave form and much less current is more effective in promoting bone healing (10,11,49). Although clinical experience exists, no studies have been published to date for these applications with MET.
Tendon and Ligament Repair
One of the first studies published on treatment of soft tissue injuries was by Wilson in 1972 (60). Microcurrent delivered in a PEMF format has been helpful in the management of refractory tendonitis of the shoulder (51). Stanish (15,16) used implantable electrodes with con- stant 20 microamp direct current in severed dog tendons. He ob- JOSEPH M. MERCOLA AND DANIEL L. KIRSCH 113
served a 92% return to normal in 8 weeks, compared to 50% in control animals.
Although implantable electrodes were used, it is likely that exter- nal electrodes could produce similar results. This could significantly enhance the current treatment of tendon ruptures. Use of MET seems to enhance cell multiplication in connective tissue, and speeds forma- tion of new collagen in injured tendons. Accelerated healing of liga- ment and tendon injuries has been reported (52) and it has been shown to increase rat tendon healing by over 250%.
Chronic wounds, of which leg ulcerations make up a major share, are a therapeutic problem. It is estimated that 90% of leg ulcers are due to venous stasis, affecting 0.6 of men and 2.1% of women in their 60s (40,53). Acute soft tissue injury is common and there are 2.5 million burn wounds a year in the US. Of 30 million lacerations, one in 5 are serious enough to require auxiliary treatment (14), Use of MET is simple, safe, and efficient and can have tremendous influence on im- proving wound healing.
Becker (54) showed that living tissues have multiple direct current surface potentials which are combined to form a steady state bio- electric field. He hypothesized that injury causes a localized shift in the current flow, triggering repair. He called this the current of injury (COI). Although first described by Galvani in 1786, and later by others (14) COI was finally confirmed in 1980 (55). These investiga- tors studied children who had experienced accidental finger amputa- tion, They found that the current peaked at 22 microamperes 8 days after the injury and thereafter slowly decreased back to zero. It is believed that this current of injury triggers biologic repair, and later work established that there is actually a battery-like aspect to the epidermis (56-58) that can influence wound healing. Since membrane potentials are basic in the cell, it is logical to assume that 75 trillion cellular batteries will influence physiology in some way.
Occlusive dressings accelerate wound healing (59), They probably achieve their effects by promoting a moist environment (57) which resurface 40% faster than air-exposed wounds (60). This is possibly related to COI, since a dry wound is less electrically conductive. Elec- trical stimulation of a wound increases the concentration of growth factor receptors which increases collagen formation (61,62), This may 114. JOURNAL OF ADVANCEMENT IN MEDICINE
be important in view of the hypothesis that a major mechanism in causing ulceration is removal of growth factors by venous hyperten- sion (63).
Electricity was first used to treat surface wounds over 300 years ago with charged gold leaf to prevent smallpox scars (64), Use of elec- tromagnetic fields predates the application of direct current (54) and there are several studies showing excellent results using this modal- ity (65-68), Animal experiments have shown, however, that direct cur- rent can accelerate epithelialization and result in stronger scar tissue formation (69,70).
The first human study using direct electrical current (71) reported complete healing of chronic venous stasis leg ulcers in 3 patients with 6 weeks of treatment. The most frequently cited study (72) used di- rect currents of 200-1000 microamps in 67 patients. This was re- peated in 1976 (73) in 76 patients with 106 ischemic skin ulcers. In 1985 a randomized controlled study was published (74). All of these studies documented significant accelerated healing with electrical stimulation.
In 1974 Rowley et al. (75) studied a group of patients having 250 ischemic ulcers of various types. The series included 14 ulcers in con- trol subjects. The electrically stimulated ulcers had a fourfold acceler- ation in healing response compared to controls.
A consistent observation in these studies was that wounds that were initially contaminated with Pseudomonas and/or Proteus were usually sterile after several days of electrotherapy. Other investiga- tors have also noticed similar improvement (75-77) and suggest this technique as the preferred treatment for indolent ulcers. No signifi- cant adverse effects resulting from electrotherapy have been docu- mented (78) and MET is clearly an effective and safe supplementary treatment for recalcitrant leg ulcers (79). Although most studies use negative current to inhibit bacterial growth and positive current to promote healing, the studies just mentioned used unipolar currents which alternated between positive and negative. There is support for this technique in one animal study (80), suggesting that bipolar cur- rent may be better for wound healing (14).
Potential Mechanisms for Repair Stimulation Becker (49) demonstrated that an electrical current emanating from a
biologic control system is the trigger that stimulates healing, growth and regeneration in all living organisms after injury but that this JOSEPH M. MERCOLA AND DANIEL L. KIRSCH 115
system may become less efficient with time. He theorizes that the self-repair inimical to survival in primitive organisms requires a closed-loop system. A specific injury signal is generated which causes another signal to start repair. The injury signal gradually decreases over time as the repair process proceeds until it finally ceases when repair is complete. Such a4 primitive system does not require demon- strable consciousness or intelligence. This purportedly explains why animals actually have a greater capacity for self-healing than do hu- mans.
Becker maintains that it is helpful to compare the nervous system with a digital computer. Both systems transfer information that is represented by the number of pulses per unit of time. Information is also coded according to where the pulses go and whether or not there is more than one channel of pulses feeding into an area. All our senses are based on this type of pulse system, an arrangement simi- lar to that used in computers. It operates remarkably fast and can transfer large amounts of information as digital “off” and “on” data.
Becker suggests that early organisms did not need to transmit large amounts of sophisticated information and may have possessed something akin to an analog system which works by means of simple DC currents. This represents information by the strength of the cur- rent, its direction of flow, and slow wavelength variations in its strength. Although much slower than the digital model, it is ex- tremely precise and works well for its intended purpose.
Becker theorizes that the first living organisms used this kind of electrical system for injury repair and that we still have this primi- tive nervous system residing in the perineural cells hidden within the central nervous system. Every nerve cell is surrounded by perineural cells which comprise 90% of the nervous system. They have semicon- duction properties which allow them to produce and transmit non- propagating DC signals. This analog system senses injury and con- trols repair. It controls the activity of body cells by producing specific DC electrical environments in their vicinity. It also appears to be the primary system in the brain, controlling the actions of neurons as they generate and receive nerve impulses.
Cancer Although there are concerns that some types of electromagnetic field
exposure can cause cancer or leukemia (49,81,82), we have strong evi- dence that MET can normalize cel] growth, accelerate cell division 116° JOURNAL OF ADVANCEMENT IN MEDICINE
after injury and inhibit cell division when it becomes abnormally ac- celerated. If a cell is in a normal state of physiologic equilibrium, ex- ternal electric fields do not appear to affect it (83).
Antitumor effects of DC currents have been reported (84), The cur- rent state of electrical cancer research seems to be where bone repair was about twenty years ago. The only studies published used invasive techniques with percutaneous needle electrodes (85-91). All of the studies report significant impairment of tumor growth with electrical treatment.
Caution is advised during pregnancy because electrical stimulation can affect the endocrine control systems and can theoretically cause miscarriage, although this has never been reported. Microcurrent, or any other electrical stimulus should not be used on patients with de- mand-type cardiac pacemakers. Other than these two conditions, there are no known significant adverse side effects to MET.
Clearly, much additional work is required to define the role of MET. The results of research published to date strongly suggest that it will have a much more prominent role in the future of health care. In its current form, it can easily and safely control pain and accelerate heal- ing. Due to its ready availability, cost effectiveness, and safety, it is time for physicians to offer it as an option. The 34% of patients who seek alternative medica] techniques would be especially appreciative.
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