Acupuncture is a constantly evolving art. Electro-acupuncture was only developed within the last 100 years. Electro-acupuncture is used to augment the pain relieving and anti-inflammatory aspects of acupuncture
Electro-acupuncture is very similar to regular acupuncture. That is the acupuncture point selection is generally the same and the treatment time is also similar. Electro-acupuncture provides additional small amount electric stimulation to the acupuncture needles. The electric stimulation enhances muscle relaxation, the release of natural pain killers in the body, as well as decreases inflammation.
Electro-acupuncture is most often used for chronic pain and inflammatory conditions. The pain relief with electro-acupuncture can be so dramatic it has been used for certain types of surgery in China.
History of Electro-acupuncture
Electro-acupuncture for pain, much like other medical discoveries, was somewhat of an accident. In the early 20th century, acupuncture doctors were looking for a way to enhance bone healing by adding electrical current to an acupuncture treatment.
While it did not speed the bone healing, the physicians found it worked wonderfully for pain relief. A new therapy in the long history of acupuncture was born.
How to use Electro-acupuncture
There are many choices when using the electroacupuncture. This is where the art and skill of the acupuncture technique comes into play.
The first is what points to put the leads on. Each lead has 2 clips. You can put them on two acupuncture points that are relatively close together if you want to focus on relaxing a specific region of the body, such as the lower back. Or you can put them farther away if you want to increase circulation in the channels. It is important to place the leads ipsilaterally, that is only one side of the body and not cross the spine.
Then one chooses the frequency. Generally, I use a lower frequency between 4hz and 10hz. This is because the low frequency has been shown to decrease both pain and inflammation (1). The higher frequency, such as 100hz or 200 hz can be powerful for reducing pain, but not as much reduction of inflammation.
After the points and the frequency for electro-acupuncture have been selected I will turn the simulator on. We gradually increase the amplitude of the each lead until the patient gently feels a light tapping. The body generally adjusts and you feel the tapping only for a few minutes.
Success is in the details: How to select frequency
Frequencies can be changed in order to focus on different types of pain. This can be useful for a short stimulation for acute muscle spasm. Or it can help someone who has been experiencing chronic pain with persistent pain or partial relief some lower frequencies, I will use a higher frequencies of electro-acupuncture to stop the pain.
For example, recently I was working with a patient with chronic pelvic pain syndrome. After 2 months of treatment with acupuncture and electro-acupuncture, we were able to reduce the pain to less than half of the initial pain levels. But there was a persistent low level of pain remaining.
I changed from low frequency to high level frequency electro-acupuncture at 200hz on lower back and pelvic regions using acupuncture points such as Bladder 23, Bladder 35, and Gall Bladder 30 for 10 minute treatment. After 3 weeks of this additional treatment, the pain was reduced to almost nothing.
1. Lixin Lao section on electro-acupuncture for pain relief in review article. For full article, please see
Napadow V, Ahn A, Longhurst J, et.al. The Status and Future of Acupuncture Mechanism Research. J Altern Complement Med. 2008 September; 14(7): 861–869.