By Pat Anson, Editor
For many years there has been a debate about the possible health effects of cell phone towers, power lines and other transmission devices that create electromagnetic fields (EMFs). These magnetic and electromagnetic frequency waves pass right through us, raising concern that they might cause cancer and other adverse health effects.
A new study by researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas suggests that cellphone towers may trigger neuropathic pain, especially in amputees that suffer from phantom limb pain.
"Our study provides evidence, for the first time, that subjects exposed to cellphone towers at low, regular levels can actually perceive pain," said Dr. Mario Romero-Ortega, senior author of the study and an associate professor of bioengineering in the University's Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. "Our study also points to a specific nerve pathway that may contribute to our main finding."
Most of the previous research into the possible health effects of cellphone towers has been conducted on individuals with no diagnosed, pre-existing conditions. This is one of the first studies to look at the effects of EMFs on amputees.
For years, retired Maj. David Underwood noticed that whenever he drove under power lines or near other electromagnetic fields, he would feel a buzz in what remained of his left arm. When traveling by car through Texas' open spaces, the buzz often became more powerful.
"When roaming on a cellphone in the car kicked in, the pain almost felt like having my arm blown off again," said Underwood, an Iraq War veteran who was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED). His injuries resulted in 35 surgeries and the amputation of his left arm.
"I didn't notice the power lines, cellphones on roam or other electromagnetic fields until I first felt them in my arm," says Underwood.
After learning about Underwood’s experiences, Romero-Ortega decided to study the phenomena.
He and his colleagues thought that neuromas -- inflamed peripheral nerve bundles that often form due to injury – could be more sensitive to EMFs. To test their theory in a laboratory, they assigned 20 rats into two groups -- one receiving a nerve injury that simulated amputation, and the other group receiving a sham treatment.
Researchers then exposed the rats to a radiofrequency electromagnetic antenna for 10 minutes, once per week for eight weeks. The antenna delivered a power density similar to what a human would be exposed to 125 feet away from a cellphone tower.
By the fourth week, 88 percent of the rats in the nerve-injured group demonstrated a behavioral pain response, while only one rat in the sham group exhibited pain. After growth of neuroma and resection -- the typical treatment in humans with neuromas who are experiencing pain -- the pain responses persisted.
"Many believe that a neuroma has to be present in order to evoke pain. Our model found that electromagnetic fields evoked pain that is perceived before neuroma formation; subjects felt pain almost immediately," Romero-Ortega said. "My hope is that this study will highlight the importance of developing clinical options to prevent neuromas, instead of the current partially effective surgery alternatives for neuroma resection to treat pain."
Romero-Ortega says since the research produced pain responses in rats similar to those in anecdotal reports from humans such as Major Underwood, the results "are very likely" generalizable to humans.
"There are people who live in caves because they report to be hypersensitive to radiomagnetism, yet the rest of the world uses cellphones and does not have a problem. The polarization may allow people to disregard the complaints of the few as psychosomatic," he said. "In our study, the subjects with nerve injury were not capable of complex psychosomatic behavior. Their pain was a direct response to man-made radiofrequency electromagnetic energy."
At one point in the study, members of the research group showed Underwood video of subjects in the experiment and their response to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.
"It was exactly the same type of movements I would have around cellphones on roam, power lines and other electromagnetic fields," said Underwood.
Until the study was published online in PLOS ONE, there was no scientific evidence to back up the anecdotal stories of people like Underwood, who reported neuropathic pain around cellphone towers and other technology that produce EMFs. .
Phantom limb pain is a common and painful disorder that many amputees feel after their limbs are removed. The origin of the pain and sensations from the missing limb are not well understood. There are nearly 2 million amputees in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.