I always chuckle a bit at the look of terror that spreads across my patients’ faces when I first tell them I’d like to hook up some of their needles to electricity. I’m sure images of Dr. Frankenstein flash through their minds with high voltage coursing through their bodies. “Why don’t you give me a lobotomy while you’re at it,” they often joke. While I totally empathize with the initial shock (pun intended), electroacupuncture is actually a very safe, very mild, dare-I-say pleasurable experience that is highly effective.

What is Electroacupuncture?

Since many people have experience with TENS units, I often start here in my explanation of electroacupuncture. TENS units are those devices where sticky pads are applied to the skin and a small electric current is delivered through the pads. Physical therapists often use these, as well as chiropractors post-adjustment. In this therapy, the small electric current causes subdermal muscle fibers to fire on and off; causing tiny, rapid waves of muscle contraction and relaxation.

If you weren’t already convinced that your body is an amazing feat of bio-engineering, it turns out that dry human skin is actually a very effective insulator of electricity. Therefore, TENS units deliver the therapeutic effect almost literally “skin deep.” With electroacupuncture, however, even though the devices we use are very similar to TENS units, we are able to deliver the electrical current both deeper into the affected tissue and to a much more precise and focused area.

What is an Electroacupuncture Treatment Like?

A treatment using electroacupuncture starts out exactly the same as a regular acupuncture session. The licensed acupuncturist (L.Ac.) diagnoses the root cause of a patient’s symptoms from a Traditional Chinese Medical perspective and determines the unique combination of acupuncture points that will best address that specific patient’s health concerns. The patient usually lies down on a massage table and the L.Ac. inserts a number of tiny, hair-thin needles through the skin. Upon insertion of those little needles, the patient’s central nervous system kicks off a cascade of physiological, biochemical and biomechanical responses.

When electroacupuncture is added to the equation, the L.Ac. will attach thin wires to 2 or more needles using tiny alligator clips. The practitioner will then turn up the electricity very, very slowly until the patient first starts to feel a sensation. This sensation can feel like a small vibration, a buzzing or tingling feeling, or a mild muscle contraction. Once the sensation is established, the L.Ac. will generally turn the electricity up (again very slowly) until a more substantial sensation is present. Personally, I tell my patients to say “when” at the point where the intensity of the sensation is about a 4 or a 5 on a scale of 1 to 10 – the point at which there is no discomfort, but if I turned it up any more it might start to become uncomfortable.

At this point, depending on the condition, the L.Ac. may adjust the frequency of the electric current. For example, when the patient’s symptoms straddle the line between pain and neuropathy, I usually set the frequency to alternate between a higher one (around 100 Hz) to a lower one (around 3 Hz). This sensation generally feels like a “buzzing” followed by a “tapping” back and forth for the duration of the electroacupuncture treatment. In this case, the higher frequency has a more inhibitory effect (i.e., it blocks the pain) while the lower frequency has a more excitatory effect (i.e., it stimulates the nerves).

Typically, we leave the electricity running for the entire course of the treatment. Most people actually feel the electricity less and less over the duration of the treatment as the body acclimates to the stimulus. This is perfectly fine since, despite the lack of sensation, the electric-stimulus machine (E-Stim for short) is still delivering the current to the affected tissue.

What Conditions Does Electroacupuncture Treat?

Electroacupuncture is used for many conditions, but most commonly for musculoskeletal pain. Tight, spasmed muscles respond exceedingly well to this therapy. The rapid contraction and relaxation of the electrical stimulus essentially confuses the muscle to the point where it just gives up its death grip and goes back to its normal, healthy state of being. Tendonitis also responds extremely well as does osteoarthritis of many joints; knees especially do well with electroacupuncture. Even low back pain radiating down the leg (as in sciatica) is generally relieved with electroacupuncture. In certain cases of anxiety and depression, we may even hook up the E-Stim to a couple of acupuncture points on the forehead (this is often when I get the lobotomy comment).

As with regular, non-electrified acupuncture, electroacupuncture can take a handful of sessions to show its effect. That said, a majority of patients do notice some improvement even after their first treatment. In any case, with most conditions, we should know if electroacupuncture is an appropriate therapy within about 4-6 treatments. Not necessarily that the condition will be 100% better at that point, but the patient should definitely notice some degree of improvement which will let us know that electroacupuncture should continue to be effective for them.

So despite the tortured images that come to mind, electroacupuncture is another great tool available to acupuncturists to bring the body’s attention to areas of dysfunction to increase circulation and reduce pain and inflammation. Your hair won’t stand on end and you won’t start picking up satellite transmissions. However, electroacupuncture will most likely make you feel “shockingly” great!

Hear from one of our patients:

“I walked into CT Family Acupuncture with 6 out of 10 pain. Having struggled with rib pain for almost 5 years, acupuncture was the only thing I had not tried. I avoided it because I felt it was expensive and was not covered by my insurance. After my second treatment of electroacupuncture, I noticed my pain was gone! I could work all day without having the nagging pain in my ribs always there in the background. Without the pain, I had more energy and I finally could sleep at night. It has been worth every penny and I wish I had tried it sooner.”
~ Amy G., Coventry Lake

Matt Maneggia is a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of Connecticut Family Acupuncture with offices in Coventry, Glastonbury. As a board member of the CT Society of Acupuncturists and a state rep to the American Society of Acupuncturists, Matt advocates for increased access to acupuncture through insurance coverage and integration of acupuncture into the mainstream healthcare system. He can be contacted through his website at: www.CTfamilyacupuncture.com or via the main office at 860-503-3676.