What is Electroacupuncture?
In previous articles, I have cited studies that utilized electroacupuncture, but I have not explained this modern version of acupuncture. Electroacupuncture is a modern variation of acupuncture that adds electricity to its needles. At an initial glance, it seems that modern technology and a 2,500-year-old system of traditional Oriental medicine would little in common.Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) by its very name is, well, traditional. Tradition and change are mutual opposites, yet inseparable, like yin and yang. But we know that TCM has changed before. For example, early acupuncture needles were made from stones and bones and eventually, precious metals became the norm. Currently, they are predominately made of stainless surgical steel.
Ancient Acupuncture Needles. Circa 475-221 BC.
With electroacupuncture increasing in popularity and newer variations coming about (laser acupuncture), is it possible that manual acupuncture will become obsolete? Let’s dive deeper into electroacupuncture and see what we lesson we can learn.
In this article, we will discuss and analyze many the aspects and concepts of electroacupuncture, including its history, mechanisms, how it compares to traditional acupuncture, and look at peer-reviewed studies that will speak for its effectiveness.
The History of Electroacupuncture
In the 2,500-year-old history of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), electroacupuncture is a recent innovation. It has a very muddle and disputed history. What we do know is that the use of electricity in medicine goes back to at least 1786, when Italian scientist, Luigi Galvani, discovered that applying an electrical spark to the leg muscles of a dead frog would cause them to twitch.
Luigi Galvani's Frog [poor frog]
As society began to be shaped by electricity and electrical inventions, such as the light bulb, so did the medical community. During the 1800s, utilizing electricity for medical treatments became the norm and eventually, electrotherapy would develop as its own medical field.
This era of medical history is marked with a wild array of devices that utilized electricity for medical purposes, from an Oudin coil’s that attempted to electrically cure cancer via cytolysis to electricity generating belts that attempted to cure male virility.
I'm not a doctor, but I doubt attaching electric cables to your neck is safe
According to some sources, electroacupuncture was invented in 1810 by a French physician, Louis Berlioz. However, my research could not find a primary source to support this claim (to be fair, I did not search in other languages).
Louis Berlioz was so hard to find information on. This isn't even his picture. This is his son, Hector Berlioz, who became a famous composer.
The earliest verifiable claim to electroacupuncture is from 1825, when a French physiologist, Jean-Baptiste Sarlandière, came up with a therapeutic technique that generated a small electric current to the subcutaneous layer of tissue via acupuncture needles. He called the therapy electropuncture.
Sarlandière had famous anatomical drawings, but apparently never bothered to draw himself.
However, it is not clear whether Sarlandière based electropuncture on the principles of Oriental medicine or if he merely used the needles as means for electricity to travel under the skin. In other words, if he was he practicing Oriental Medicine using Western technology or if he was practicing Western medicine using a combination of modern technology and an ancient TCM modality.
The earliest intentional use of electroacupuncture (as a TCM modality) can be attributed to the Chinese doctor, Tang She-cheng, who wrote a treatise on the subject in 1934 titled, The Technique and Principles of Electroacupuncture and the Study of Electroacupuncture.
The earliest intentional use of electroacupuncture in the West can be attributed to the French acupuncturist Dr. Roger de La Fuye who coined the term electroacupuncture around 1947 and wrote a treatise on the subject, titled L'acupuncture
Dr. Roger de la Fuye, Electroacupuncture pioneer
In 1976, a peer-reviewed journal, Acupuncture & Electro-Therapeutics Research, was established, solidifying the connection between acupuncture and electrotherapy, as well as establishing electroacupuncture as widely-accepted practice in the Oriental Medicine community.
Today, electroacupuncture is a popular form of treatment that practiced widely by licensed Acupuncture Physicians to treat different health conditions.
While the origins of electroacupuncture are muddled in history, what we now know is that is an effective healing practice. As you will read later on, it has been utilized in research studies by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and has evidence to back the claims of effectiveness.
Electroacupuncture vs Traditional Acupuncture
Because electroacupuncture is not well-known as traditional acupuncture, the similarities and differences between the two modalities may not be readily apparent. But first, let’s quickly review how acupuncture works.
TCM Health and Acupuncture: According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, illness occurs when the body’s qi (vital life energy) deviates from its normal flow, which it does via channels called meridians. These meridians are non-physical but have anatomically-precise locations on the surface of the body known as meridian points. Traditional acupuncture then works by manually stimulating the flow of qi using needles, which are inserted at particular meridian points.
Acupuncturist in Miami, Florida. Enjoying the
Electroacupuncture: In essence, electroacupuncture works the same way. However, the difference between the two then is the needles and source of stimulation. In traditional acupuncture, a single needle is used per meridian point. The needle is then manually stimulated by the acupuncturist and the patient’s body.
Because of the difference in technology, electroacupuncture uses a set of dual-needles per meridian point. Each set of dual-needles is connected to a machine which passes a small electric current through the needle set. The needles are designed to alternate moving back-and-forth between each other, creating a vibrating or tapping sensation.
Dual-needles. They look intimidating up close.
It is both the traveling electrical pulse from the machine and manual tapping from the needles that help stimulate the flow of Qi.
The pace and intensity of the electrical charge and needling tapping can be reduced or increased by the machine.
Advantages of EA: An article in Acupuncture Today, brings up the point (no pun intended) that the traveling electrical current can cover a greater surface area of a meridian than a needle can, making electroacupuncture more accurate than traditional acupuncture.
Furthermore, since the electric pulse sufficient in being able to stimulate the flow qi by itself, then a similar procedure to electroacupuncture can be done without using the needle-set.
This needle-less procedure is known as TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) and is done by placing electrode wires over the meridian points, rather than by inserting needles.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation
If traditional acupuncture cannot be used, then an acupuncturist will often use tui na, which is a form of massage therapy based on meridian-knowledge (acupressure). While Tui Na is super effective, it can become difficult to perform it for long periods of time, especially for older and/or acupuncturists with hand and wrist issues.
Downsides to EA: Given all this, it can be said that the power of electricity is what gives electroacupuncture its many advantages over traditional acupuncture. While true, it also gives electroacupuncture (and TEN) its limitations. For example, electroacupuncture cannot be used by patients with certain health conditions, such as patients that are pregnant or that have pacemakers, heart problems, or a history of seizures cannot use electroacupuncture. Traditional acupuncture can treat patients with all these different health states.
Furthermore, electroacupuncture cannot be used
Electroacupuncture has many advantages and limitations when compared with traditional acupuncture. Ultimately though, determining acupuncture variation is best for your particular health situation is something to discuss with your Licensed Acupuncture Physician.
The Effectiveness of Electroacupuncture
We have compared electroacupuncture (EA) with traditional acupuncture and have discussed its history and mechanisms, but have not discussed where it shows promise as a form of healing. The NCCIH has a list of featured studies involving electroacupuncture. Many of these studies were similar to those on traditional acupuncture, but I find the study on electroacupuncture and Chronic Stress levels was very interesting. Let’s take a closer at it.
Chronic Stress: A 2012 study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center suggests that electroacupuncture may be an effective way to reduce chronic stress. The study measured and compared the levels of neuropeptide Y (NPY) in different groups of rats after being exposed to chronic-stress conditions over an extended period of time.
Neuropeptide Y (NPY) is a sympathetic peptide that increased during high-levels of chronic stress and is “believed to contribute to the physiological stress response.”
There were four groups of rats. The negative control group, which was not exposed to the stress-conditions and did not receive a treatment (normal NPY levels expected). The positive control group, which was exposed to the stress-conditions and did not receive a treatment (high NPY levels expected).
The EA-group, which was exposed to the stress-conditions and received an actual EA-treatment (EA-needles inserted at specific meridians). Finally, there the sham-EA group, which was exposed to the stress-conditions and received a pseudo-EA treatment, meaning the treatment resembled EA externally (EA-needles inserted randomly or at a non-stress meridian point). Sham-treatments are used to account for any possible causations in the real-treatment as correlations.
At the end of the 14-day experiment, researchers found that the EA-group had significantly lower levels of NPY than did the sham-EA group and positive control group. Meanwhile, the levels of NPY between the positive-control group and the sham-EA group were similar.
The findings from the study suggest that electroacupuncture may be able to block NPY production and consequently, reduce the physical symptoms of chronic stress. As such, electroacupuncture shows promise for helping to treat those with stress-related disorders.
Conclusion: My favorite aspect of the Chronic-Stress study was not so much the conclusion (traditional acupuncture is good for stress, too), but rather that the EA-group performed better than the sham-EA group. It seems to suggest, above all, that there is much more to acupuncture than some our friends in the conventional medical field would care to think!
Electroacupuncture shows that Traditional Chinese Medicine will continue to change as technology advances. While the instruments to conduct acupuncture have changed over-time, the ideas behind the modality remain the same: restore the balance of qi to heal the patient.
Those ideas have been around for over 2,500 years and they continue to become more popular in the West, as their modalities continue to prove their effectiveness by healing people.
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