Can Electricity Spark New Therapies?
For centuries people have been experimenting with using electricity for therapeutic purposes. You may remember from a previous blog – The TENS Commandments – that the ancient Greeks and Romans were aware of the benefits of electrotherapy for pain relief during childbirth and in other situations. The trouble is, the only means that they had at their disposal for tapping into a current was to shock patients naturally, perhaps by standing on an electric Torpedo ray!
Many centuries later in 1802, shortly after Alessandro Volta created the first electric battery, physicist Giovanni Aldini further explored the relationship between electricity stimulation and natural organisms, albeit in quite a crude way. He connected the severed head of an ox to a battery and watched it twitch and appear to come back to life.
As the newly discovered “trendy” science of the 19th century, the study of electricity and its effects on living organisms fascinated numerous artists and writers, perhaps most famously Mary Shelley. Her gothic 1818 Gothic novel Frankenstein is still a classic of its genre, in which a scientist is able to spark a collection of dead body parts back into life. At the time, electricity promised not only therapy but the prospect of reanimation and perhaps eternal life!
But of course, just like the snake oil salesmen of the time, there were plenty of charlatans prepared to make wildly unsubstantiated and unscientific claims about how electricity might be applied for therapeutic benefit. Others were engaged in research. For instance, in 1901 founder of a medical institute in Lyon, France, Francisque Crotte was attempting to treat tuberculosis with an electrical remedy.
Others sought to alleviate rheumatism using low-voltage “galvanic baths”. Today, there are
much more sophisticated electrotherapy solutions to the problem of rheumatoid arthritis than the more primitive approaches of past centuries. One new approach is to directly stimulate the vagus nerve.
One of the most controversial treatments down the years has been ECT or electro-convulsive therapy. Undoubtedly a blunt-edged instrument, it has nevertheless sometimes been effective where medication and behavior therapy has failed. It works by passing a strong current through the brain to trigger a seizure. By disrupting the small electrical currents in the central nervous system it is hoped that the brain is effectively 'jump started'. However, there is much that we still do not know about the effects of ECT on the human brain.
Today, electrotherapy has become mainstream with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which is a widely accepted alternative to pharmaceutical pain treatment – see The TENS Commandments.
In common with other trends in medicine, researchers are now developing much more targeted devices, such as the occipital nerve stimulator, which can treat chronic migraines using electrodes implanted in the back of the head. These electrodes receive electrical impulses from a chest implant control unit that can be remotely adjusted.
In addition to pain management, there is some evidence that electrotherapy may speed the healing of wounds. It has also been used for relaxation of muscle spasms, prevention and retardation of disuse atrophy, increase of local blood circulation and muscle rehabilitation.