Electrical Acupuncture (EA) is the usage of an electrical pulse generator (called an electrical stimulation machine) connected to acupuncture needles for therapeutic or analgesic purposes. EA was invented in China in the late 1950’s mostly for convenience. Many acupuncture doctors were using manual stimulation of the needles (twisting and manipulating) during surgery. It was difficult for the surgeon to manually stimulate the needles while simultaneously performing surgery, thus the EA machine was invented. Back in the 50’s and 60’s in China it was a popular option to have acupuncture anesthesia instead of drug anesthesia during an operation - this was also partly due to the scarcity and high cost of pharmaceuticals used in China at the time. In the late 70’s in America, TV programs started showing heart surgeries, dental procedures, brain surgery, and C-sections being done for pain relief with analgesia solely with EA. This obviously gained much attention because of its radicalism.
Electrical stimulation is commonly used for pain management. I’m sure you’ve even seen topical electrical stimulation machines being sold over the counter - these topical electrical stimulation units are called TENS, or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation units. A TENS unit uses a pair of small patches placed over sore muscle and sends a small electrical pulse from patch to patch, stimulating superficial nerves. These nerves are mostly large nerve fibers that carry a signal to your brain very fast, which results in immediate pain relief for short term. But these TENS units are way less cool than the EA I use. Why? With EA we insert a needle below the surface of the skin, sometimes even several inches deep to reach the exact source of the pain. For areas such as the glutes the needle might go almost to the bone, or if someone has a bulging disc we will insert the needle right over top of that spinal disc. Then we connect small alligator clips to specific needles and send the electrical current from needle to needle. This is drastically different not only because of the increased depth, but also the nerves affected are vastly different than the large nerve fibers on the top of the skin. Furthermore, in the EA world we now have the technology to set the machine on an exact setting for specific conditions to help focus on specific nerve fibers.
We aren’t just stimulating large nerve fibers - we can stimulate small ones that help with long term pain relief too. I was extremely lucky, because I decided when I was going through acupuncture school to take on an internship. Even though I didn’t get paid hardly anything I learned a ton. During my time there I learned all the ins and outs of EA. More specifically I learned about the very complicated application of specialized
electrical stimulation machines that very few practitioners use and how to precisely apply EA to conditions other than just pain syndromes. This machine I use is special because we can direct exactly which way the electricity moves, instead of just sending erratic electrical signals in the muscles without direction. We can control hertz, frequency, and even the shape of the pulse pattern. These all come in handy because each nerve fiber responds to a different type of stimulation, meaning we can actually target a specific type of endorphin or pain killing substrate to be stimulated with the proper setting. We can even stimulate a very specific area of the brain depending on the setting which of course will change the outcome! I have written previously about acupuncture points and what makes them special. Acupuncture points are very clearly different than surrounding tissues. There is a higher density of Mast Cells which holds a large key to helping someone recover from injuries and helping them feel better. There is an expression of nitric oxide when acupuncture points are stimulated as compared to non-acupuncture points. But mostly the nerves that reside at acupuncture points are very sensitive and when stimulated (especially with EA), cause a very intense spike of activity both in local muscles and nerves and through the entire central nervous system and brain. EA is like the holy grail of acupuncture. We can produce a bigger, faster more targeted and effective stimulation with these devices. The downside is that because EA is so powerful, I rarely use it on the first treatment if someone is new to acupuncture. If someone’s first treatment is too strong, it can definitely make them feel worse.
The thing I like most though about EA versus a TENS unit is that because we are trying to stimulate a variety of nerves, not just big ones, it's actually less painful. EA should never be painful - it really just feels like a tap or a muscle massage. TENS can often feel very prickly and pokey. Often patients describe EA as they would a massage that really “got in there and worked out the kinks”. EA is constantly gaining new technological advancements to help more patients. EA is great for any type of pain, brain injuries or Parkinson's disease, Bell’s palsy, digestive issues, headaches, injuries that won't heal, itching, sleep issues, nausea, labor induction, eye, ear, nose and throat problems, post stroke, and many others. And as always, it is best to go to someone who is properly trained to get the best care.
Dr. Christina Fick (DAOM)