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Many people are familiar with a TENS unit. They may have experienced its uses at their physical therapist or chiropractor, or may even utilize a TENS unit at home. TENS is short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It stimulates nerve impulses and is most commonly used for pain-related conditions. It signals the brain to release endorphins at the local site where the TENS unit is applying a pulsating sensation.

Acupuncturists have way more fun. We use a similar device for electro-acupuncture, also known as electric stimulation, e‑stim for short. However, there is a major difference in its effect because of the way it is utilized. A TENS units is adhered to the surface of the skin. It is connected to flat patches or pads and thus the stimulation is primarily providing an impulse on the surface. I attach the electrodes on the e‑stim unit to the acupuncture needles that are in the local area. They are attached via alligator clamps that grasp the needle. It is easy to visualize and understand why electric stimulation would provide a much greater stimulation. The impulse penetrates not only the soft tissue but also the muscle in the local region.

I am quick to explain to patients experiencing e‑stim for the first time that I will not electrocute or shock them–they won’t need to jump off the table! It is completely painless and we work up to the level of intensity that the patient is comfortable with. There are various settings on the device, which are used for various types of illnesses. The various settings, as well as the fact that the impulses are penetrating the soft tissue and muscle, allow a broader spectrum of symptoms and illnesses to be treated.

Some common issues that I treat daily with electrical stimulation include sciatic back pain, weight gain, knee pain, neurological nerve damage, and neuropathy. This is just a sample of its wide reach. During the course of a standard acupuncture treatment, I stimulate the needles two or three times: upon insertion, before removal of the needle, and often during the treatment as well. The stimulation I apply can be felt as a slight turn of the needle, a flick of the needle, or even a pulling and grasping sensation. Most patients don’t even notice. The stimulation on the needle is of key importance to obtain results for the treatment. In short, it calls to the qi in the body to come to the acupuncture point.

The mechanical stimulation on the needles that I provide is limited to the human factor of manipulating the needle. Thus the e‑stim device is a great tool that I use frequently. The intensity is set slightly higher initially, as within 2—3 minutes it becomes duller and barely noticeable as the body acclimates. In all cases the patient is comfortable and feels merely a slight pulsation. They usually sleep or relax deeply through the treatment. It can be set to deliver a consistent stimulation, or an intermittent pattern of stimulation. Both the type of current and the intensity are adjusted for the particular concerns being addressed for the patient. The current applied for a patient suffering from paralysis of limbs, Bell’s palsy, stroke recovery, or nerve damage would be different than for someone suffering with acute sciatic pain or knee pain or who is trying to lose weight.

A number of years ago I was treating a patient who had suffered paralysis from the waist down after she was involved in a traumatic car accident. My patient, a girl in her twenties at the time of the accident, had not been wearing a seat belt. She was ejected from the vehicle and hit a tree. Needless to say she had undergone many extensive surgeries by the time I saw her four years after the accident. I utilized e‑stim for this patient at specific settings to awaken the nerves. I treated her multiple times per week for about nine months before I relocated to my current office. However, in that time I saw the legs begin to jump at the pulsation, which gave her hope that she might have some minimal improvement that would significantly change her quality of life. It allowed her improvement with regard to bladder and bowel control. Additionally, she had a special assistive device for putting her wheelchair into her trunk and allowing her to drive her vehicle. The improvements she experienced helped her access her car, something most of us take for granted.

More often I utilize the amazing benefits of electrical stimulation for relieving the nerve pain associated with sciatica. It works like a charm, and in many cases the pain is gone within 6—10 treatments.

I especially love using e‑stim for weight loss. I don’t believe in any quick diet fix. I believe that we all need to make healthy lifestyle choices. The stimulation can help promote metabolism and peristalsis which enables the digestive tract to work more efficiently.

Just like the electrical stimulation penetrates deeper than a TENS unit, so does acupuncture treatment as a whole. We are not just treating symptoms, but getting to the root of the problem to stop it from recurring. It is time for you to take control of your health and chronic issues. Why try obtaining superficial improvement when you can get to the depth of the illness and treat it from within?