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Cranial Electrostimulation

Posted 12/17/2007

Several months go, I was reading the on-line bulletin of the Rush Medical Center here in Chicago when my eye caught an article about Rush psychiatrists enrolling patients into a trial of a non-medical therapy for depression and anxiety. They were especially seeking patients who were either medication-resistant or had experienced too many medication side effects.

When I read they were using a Cranial Electrostimulating Device (CES), I wondered what had taken them so long.

The first CES devices were used for depression almost 20 years ago, developed by neurosurgeon Norm Shealy, MD, inventor of the TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) units used in physical therapy and truly one of the pioneers in alternative medicine.

Dr. Shealy is beloved by doctors in my field, having been the one of the founders (along with Christiane Northrup, MD) of the American Holistic Medical Association. Dr. Shealy was also instrumental in bringing Carolyn Myss to the forefront of spiritual medicine. In fact, her first book was co-authored with him.

By the 1960s, it was well known that electrical shocking of the brain was an effective but definitely harsh therapy for severe depression. What Dr. Shealy discovered was that very tiny currents of electricity applied to the earlobes might be effective for mild depression. CES devices began appearing in the 1990s, but because Dr. Shealy chooses not to be affiliated with any major medical center, CES therapy never got the publicity it deserved. Finally, however, the FDA reviewed the data and gave their stamp of approval.

At WholeHealth Chicago, we’re using a CES unit called Alpha-Stim, recommending it for depression, anxiety, panic disorder, and chronic insomnia, especially for patients for whom medications haven’t worked well (about 50% of patients) or have caused intolerable side effects. Although CES has not officially received FDA approval for treating fibromyalgia, there are several excellent clinical studies showing that most fibromyalgia patients can reduce or even eliminate their pain medications using CES regularly.

How does CES therapy work?
After applying adhesive electrodes to your earlobes, you turn on a small device that vaguely resembles an iPod. The device gently stimulates your brain to produce brain chemicals called neurotransmitters–especially feel-good serotonin–just like an antidepressant. Most patients who have tried the unit say they barely feel anything.

Amazingly, anxiety reduction can occur during your first 20-minute treatment. Insomnia, depression, and fibromyalgia take longer, up to three or four weeks of daily use. Once symptoms are under control, twice weekly “maintenance” is recommended. The progress you make with CES is lasting and the overall effect seems to accumulate–that is, using it more frequently produces a better and longer lasting effect. The only side effect occurs if you set the current too high: you can feel slightly nauseated. This disappears in seconds by reducing the current. There is absolutely no downside to CES therapy.

CES devices require a doctor’s prescription. If you’re going home with an Alpha-Stim, we want to make sure you know how to operate it. The most important aspect of the Alpha-Stim is your own commitment to using it.

It’s definitely worth trying to squeeze some money from your health insurer as the device is FDA approved. In your policy it’s classified as “Durable Medical Equipment-TENS unit.”


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