Two thousand years ago, the Roman physician Scribonius Largus reported that headaches could be relieved with the sting of a live electric eel. Ever since then, scientists have been interested in the healing powers of electricity.
The buzz term at the moment is microcurrent therapy – or MCT – which refers to a plethora of home-use gadgets that manufacturers claim can relieve countless conditions.
With names such as Alpha-Stim and Microdoctor, these devices are typically powered by little more than a few AA batteries, and deliver a tiny current to the skin via clips or sticky pads. The charge is so weak, it cannot usually be felt.
They are being touted as treatments for everything from joint and back pain to headaches, gout, multiple sclerosis and even depression.
Is this a revolution in symptom management and a one-size-fits-all alternative to drugs? Or are manufacturers cynically targeting vulnerable sufferers who will try – and pay – anything to alleviate chronic conditions?
Surprisingly, some experts are quite open to the concept. Our bodies are composed of billions of atoms, which produce electrical signals that run almost instantaneously through the body as nerve signals, controlling all bodily functions, both conscious and unconscious.
MCT device companies claim injury and illness upset these signals, and the treatment resets our ‘natural electrical currents’, aiding healing and reducing pain.
The concept will be familiar to the millions of Britons who have tried a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine, which delivers electricity to the skin’s surface via sticky pads.
MCT typically involves electrical currents measuring less than one milliampere – a thousandth of an ampere (a measurement of electrical current). To put this in perspective, a lightbulb may use about 500 milliamperes. TENS uses a higher electrical current than MCT, often above 60 milliamperes, to stimulate the nerves and block pain. ‘New applications are mostly used for pain relief and soft tissue injury,’ says Tim Watson, professor of physiotherapy at the University of Hertfordshire.
His team reviewed the clinical evidence for its efficacy in medical use two years ago and concluded that it is unquestionably effective. ‘There is no doubt that MCT works,’ says Prof Watson. ‘But we don’t yet know whether it’s the current strength, the pulse pattern or the treatment duration that makes a difference.’
His team concluded that microcurrent is most effective when used for significantly longer than the daily 20 minutes recommended by most manufacturers.
‘We went up to three hours a day in our trials, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used for longer,’ he said.