Electroacupuncture is similar to acupuncture, a widely practiced form of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Acupuncture involves the use of thin needles to stimulate specific pressure points linked to unwanted symptoms.
In standard acupuncture, one needle is used at each treatment point. Electroacupuncture is a modified form that uses two needles. These needles can be as far apart as the head to the feet.
A mild electric current passes between these needles during treatment. This current generally applies more stimulation to acupoints than needle twirling or other hand manipulation techniques an acupuncturist might use.
Read on to learn more about electroacupuncture, including how it’s done and the research behind it.
People use electroacupuncture to address a range of symptoms and health issues, including:
In TCM, your health depends on the flow of qi (energy) in your body. This energy travels along invisible pathways, known as meridians. These are found throughout your body.
Qi is believed to help keep your body in balance and promote its natural ability to heal itself. A blocked or disrupted flow of qi can negatively impact physical and emotional well-being.
That’s where electroacupuncture comes in. It stimulates the points linked to your symptoms to help restart the flow of qi. Two needles are placed around the point while a machine delivers an electrical impulse to them.
Electroacupuncture is intended to help increase the potential healing effects of standard acupuncture. It works with the gate theory of pain, in which connections in the spinal cord function as “gates” that block pain signals to the brain.
Electroacupuncture is typically done by an acupuncturist. Here’s what a session might look like:
- Your acupuncturist will evaluate your symptoms and select points for treatment.
- They’ll insert a needle at the treatment point and another needle nearby.
- Once the needles are inserted to the correct depth, your acupuncturist will use electrodes to connect the needles to a special electroacupuncture machine.
- After the electrodes are attached, they’ll turn on the machine. Electroacupuncture machines have adjustable current and voltage settings. Low voltages and frequencies will be used at first, though your acupuncturist may adjust the frequency and voltage of the current during treatment.
- The electric current pulsates, alternating between the two needles.
A typical session can be as long as regular acupuncture sessions. Up to 40 minutes is within normal standards of care.
Does it hurt?
The electrical current used in electroacupuncture doesn’t act on you directly. While you might feel some tingling or vibration, you shouldn’t feel any pain during the treatment, aside from a quick prick when the needle is placed. Many people report not feeling any pain, even with needle insertion.
Electroacupuncture is fairly new treatment, so there isn’t much evidence to support its effectiveness for different uses.
Still, a handful of studies suggest that it may provide some relief from chemotherapy side effects, arthritis, and acute (short-term) pain.
One study used electroacupuncture treatments. In this study, those who received electroacupuncture treatment reported a significant reduction in knee pain just 24 hours after treatment. This effect lasts as long as four months after treatment.
However, the review authors note that the study included only a small number of participants and was of low quality.
A more recent literature review from 2017 looked at 11 randomized controlled trials on electroacupuncture for knee osteoarthritis. The results suggest electroacupuncture helped to both reduce pain and improve movement. The authors noted that the studies seemed to suggest four weeks of treatment were needed.
The study authors concluded by emphasizing the need for more high-quality trials to support electroacupuncture’s treatment benefits.
The authors also found evidence to suggest a combination of electroacupuncture and pain medication may be more effective than medication alone. This is promising, as it could mean that using electroacupuncture for pain relief may reduce the need for high doses of medicine.
Keep in mind that these results came from animal studies. More research is needed to understand the effects of electroacupuncture on pain in humans.
As with standard acupuncture, electroacupuncture can cause a few side effects for certain people.
These might include:
- mild nausea
- dizziness, feeling faint, or fainting
- pain or light bleeding when the needle is inserted
- redness or bruising at the needle site
- infection at the needle site, though this is rare when single-use sterile needles are used
If the tingling or vibration of the electric current causes discomfort, tell your acupuncturist right away. If the voltage is too strong, the sensation could become unpleasant. Electric shock is possible, but it’s rare if your acupuncturist is trained and the machine is working properly.
Electroacupuncture is generally very safe if done by a skilled provider. However, if it isn’t performed correctly, electroacupuncture can cause internal injuries or even electric shock.
In addition, you shouldn’t try electroacupuncture if you:
It’s generally recommended to talk to your doctor before trying a new treatment, especially if you have any underlying health issues.
If you’d like to try electroacupuncture, you’ll first need to find a state-licensed acupuncturist. Make sure to ask if they offer electrical stimulation when you call to get more information. Not all acupuncture clinics offer this treatment.
To search for licensed practitioners in your area, try searching The National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine’s registry. Once you’ve found a provider, you can call or check online with your state licensing board to make sure they’re licensed to practice in your state.
Before making an appointment, consider asking the practitioner a few questions, such as:
- if they have training or certification in electroacupuncture
- how long a typical treatment lasts
- how long they’ve been treating clients
- if they have experience using electroacupuncture to treat your symptoms
- if they accept medical insurance
If you’re worried about pain or discomfort, let them know. They may be able to address your concerns and help you feel more comfortable before your first session.
Acupuncture usually takes numerous treatments over several weeks to make a difference, so expect to be asked to come back for more treatments.
Even if the acupuncturist you choose accepts health insurance, not all insurance providers cover acupuncture, so it’s a good idea to call your provider to find out if they’ll cover acupuncture treatments — and if so, how many.
Electroacupuncture is closely related to acupuncture, but it involves stimulating two needles with an electrical current. Some believe that this enhances the healing properties of traditional acupuncture.
There’s limited evidence to support the many claims made about electroacupuncture. But the research that does exist suggests it may help with several health issues, including arthritis, acute pain, and chemotherapy side effects.
Acupuncture is a well-studied and evidenced-based practice that has been used successfully for thousands of years. We do need more research on adding electricity to this ancient practice.