You’re probably familiar with the thousands-year-old practice of acupuncture, touted as a remedy for everything from chronic pain to asthma to infertility. But now, this wellness treatment is getting a serious boost…from an electrical current.
While electroacupuncture isn’t entirely new, it’s definitely becoming more popular. How it works: “You take clips — like you’re going to jump your car — and connect them to the acupuncture needle, then connect them to an electrical current,” says Dr. Anna Folckomer, a New York City-based licensed acupuncturist. The machine then sends pulses into the body.
Sound kind of scary? Don’t worry, this isn’t some Frankenstein nightmare. The results of this high-powered alternative medicine can get shockingly good. Learn all about how it’s making waves below.
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Electroacupuncture: How It Works
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture helps restore balance in the body by activating your “qi” (pronounced “chee”) or life force. A disrupted qi can lead to pain, illness or other conditions. Depending on your symptoms, an acupuncturist will insert superfine needles into your skin and manipulate them by hand to stimulate specific points on the body. This is meant to release any blockages.
“The therapy can help with optimal performance and recovery from training sessions thanks to how effectively it releases trigger points.”
Electroacupuncture uses the same principles and pressure points as the traditional needling method, but it adds a microcurrent to the needle. Practitioners adjust the frequency of the current and the number of electrons that flow through the wire to the body. “It’s like someone sitting there tapping the needle, constantly stimulating it in a way that you can’t achieve with your hand,” says Folckomer. “[This method] enhances the function of that specific point and activates different types of regeneration in the body.
Besides working through pressure points, the therapy also taps into your nervous system. “Low frequency electroacupuncture is said to be associated with a greater output of endorphins from the nervous system,” says Peter Dubitsky, MS, director of clinical training at the Tri-State College of Acupuncture and practitioner at the Izland Integrative Wellness Center and Institute of Rhinebeck. “[These endorphins] circulate in your bloodstream longer, providing an extended period of pain relief compared to acupuncture alone.” The neutrons traveling throughout your body can also provide better tissue healing and wound repair.
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Amping Up the Results
Dubitsky and Folckomer regularly incorporate electroacupuncture into their patients’ care to treat a wide range of conditions from anxiety to skin issues to addiction. Recently, researchers found that the treatment can also benefit gut health, particularly for those suffering from chronic constipation. And it may help relieve symptoms of joint pain, fatigue and depression in breast cancer patients.
Athletes might also see some promising results from electroacupuncture. According to Dubitsky, the therapy can help with optimal performance and recovery from training sessions thanks to how effectively it releases trigger points. “These are bands of hyper-irritated muscle tissues that can come from imbalances in nutrition, overuse, strain or trauma,” says Dubitsky. “With a trigger point technique, you can get the muscle to twitch and then relax.” The outcome: a more balanced muscle structure and pain or tightness relief in that particular area. This pay-off usually occurs after one to three sessions.
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Dubitsky has actually used electroacupuncture to treat plantar fasciitis — the bane of many runners. A combination of needles inserted in the lower leg and surface electrodes on the bottom of the foot help heal the injury. He’s performed a similar technique for treating carpal tunnel syndrome, too. (There’s actually research that shows it’s effective.) He places electrodes on the wrist to treat the carpal tunnel area, with needles on the surrounding muscles.
If you’ve broken a bone, electroacupuncture may even help you heal faster. “It can stimulate bone growth, nerve regeneration, ligament health and capillary formation,” says Folckomer. “If you have a fracture and apply a low frequency microcurrent, it will help you re-establish the bone matrix and knit the bone faster.”
Your First Session: What to Expect
Like any treatment, your acupuncturist will start by asking about your medical history and symptoms. “Since this is a holistic practice, if you come in for shoulder pain, I want to know about your digestion, elimination, breathing, everything,” says Folckomer. “I’m getting the most information possible so that I can customize your treatment plan.” Those with an electrical device (like a pacemaker or defibrillator) or pregnant women would be better off skipping a shock session.
“While the thought of becoming a human pincushion makes some people woozy, don’t fret. Insertion of the needles often doesn’t hurt.”
Treatment then takes place on a table, as it does during a massage. You may be dressed or undressed (but covered by sheets). Some practitioners may leave the room after placing the needles to give you time to rest and relax. If that makes you uneasy, you can always ask your practitioner to stay. Some experts may also use acupressure or myofascial release to further enhance your session.
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While the thought of becoming a human pincushion makes some people woozy, don’t fret. Insertion of the needles often doesn’t hurt. And the electrical current shouldn’t feel like you’re getting shocked, either. “You might be aware of a pulse or a dull heaviness” with the current, says Folckomer. But serious pain? Probably not. Just don’t be surprised if you feel multiple sensations throughout your body — even in areas far from the needles. For example, some people may get a needle in their back, but feel a tingling in their foot, Folckomer says.
When your treatment is over, take your time getting off the table. “People are often surprised by how they feel afterwards,” says Dubitsky. His patients describe everything from a profound sense of relaxation to feeling a bit spacey or drained. “You may also feel sore the next day, depending on the technique used,” he says, especially with trigger point therapy. “There’s also the possibility that the needle may leave a bruise, but that’s not very common.”
Of course, chat with your doctor before trying this practice. And if you do head in for a session, sit back and relax. The outcome just might shock you.