Riddle me this: Why do an increasing number of spine surgeons prescribe electrical bone growth stimulators as supplemental post- surgical treatment and why do physical therapists continue to use electrical stimulation, as they have for years, but acupuncture is still considered a placebo?
If you have little to no experience with– or trust in– ancient Eastern medical treatments, you’re probably picturing me wearing a tin foil hat. Please know I’m neither surprised nor offended. All I ask is that you reserve judgment until my conclusion.
If you only have experiential knowledge of magnets via the paperclip holder on your desk or the vacation souvenirs on your fridge, electromagnetism probably seems like magic. I can assure you it’s quite sciencey; from the field of Physics to be exact.
First, you need to know that a force refers to a push or pull, which starts, slows, or stops an object. It can even deform it. Second, all matter– literally everything– is made of molecules, which are made of atoms. These particles are too small to see without a specialized ultra- powerful microscope. Third, there are 4 fundamental forces that affect these particles; I will highlight 2 of them.
The weakest force is Gravity, which is a downward pull. Despite its power over whole people and objects, it has very little effect on subatomic particles because they’re so small.
The Electromagnetic force is much stronger– it holds atoms and molecules together. In the 1800s, physicists discovered that electricity and magnetism are closely related: a moving electric current generates a magnetic field. 20th century researchers discovered that subatomic particles exert electromagnetic forces upon each other.
Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy is rapidly expanding from the treatment of soft tissue injuries in the 1970s to its current application for bone fractures and Multiple Sclerosis. How is this possible?
All objects, even our bodies, emit electromagnetic radiation, (a.k.a. thermal radiation). The amount varies, depending upon several factors, but it can take many forms, such as radio waves, microwaves, x-rays and even sunlight. Meteorologists use it for satellite imaging and TSA workers use it to screen potential airline passengers.
But waves aren’t only given off; they can be sent out to see if they bounce back. Animals, such as bats and dolphins use sound navigation and ranging (a.k.a. SONAR) to locate objects. This inspired the ultrasound, which transmits silent mechanical waves; the resulting echo generates a picture interpreted by a computer monitor. Doctors can now see cysts and tumors, babies inutero and even watch blood flow.
The point is magnetic fields are everywhere. At some point you’ve likely seen a bar magnet laid on a pile of iron filings. Rather than bunch together in a random cluster, they spike outward like rays in a child’s drawing of the Sun except that they form arcs around each end, which are called poles. Each pole attracts its opposite, which makes them stick together.
To repair damage during childhood and adolescence, bone tissue can be added just below a growth plate (cartilage that will harden later) located near each joint so the tissue gets pushed along toward the end of the bone. This prevents the shoulder/ elbow/ knee/ ankle from fusing together and preventing movement.
Note that extended illness or an infectious disease will leave a permanent line perpendicular to the direction of the bone (i.e. lines going across if you’re looking at an x-ray of a bone positioned up and down) leftover from damage back when the end of the bone was still just a plate. The combination of these two phenomena– upward movement toward each pole yet outward along the sides– indicates a familiar pattern, doesn’t it?
Researchers are willing to report findings that bone growth in adults can be artificially stimulated by marrow- derived stem cells that recreate cartilage, bone and blood cells by forming intercellular growth tissue. Low- frequency electromagnetic fields affect these and many other biological functions, such as cell differentiation and gene expression (please refer back to my genetics primer).
So why won’t scientists investigate the healing effects of acupuncture? Likely because the ancient concept of Qi (“chee”) energy seems too mystical. It’s said to be energy (in this case specifically) that flows through the body’s pathways, called meridians, which match up with certain organs. In Chinese Medicine, illness is believed to result from an imbalance of Qi’s flow through these meridians.
This ancient concept dates back hundreds of thousands of years so it has to overcome time, culture and language barriers. But we don’t necessarily have to call– what we can now classify as electrical fields and/ or radiation– “Qi”; name it “EFAR” or “Elfrad.” Personally, I’m partial to “Elfie.”
Regardless of what you call it, early Chinese practitioners were on to something without the aid of modern technology. Give them some credit! There isn’t any reason we can’t expound upon the principles they already discovered. After all, it was once thought the atom was the smallest particle in the universe yet nobody mocks or dismisses the scientist who discovered that; he helped laid the foundation for future research.