Study Finds Little Evidence Shock Therapy Works

By Pat Anson, Editor

There is little evidence that electric shock therapy is an effective treatment for fibromyalgia, headache, degenerative joint pain and other chronic pain conditions, according to a new study by researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cranial electric stimulation (CES) uses electrodes placed on the head to send small electric shocks to the brain to stimulate neurotransmitters.  Consumer interest in the therapy is increasing and several manufacturers make portable CES devices for home use -- such as the Fisher Wallace stimulator and Alpha-Stim AID -- marketing them as a treatment for pain, depression, anxiety and insomnia.


But in a review of 26 clinical trials published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, researchers found “limited evidence” to support the use of CES to treat these medical conditions. Many of the studies were small, had questionable validity and the reported results were often inconsistent. Some studies suggested that CES therapy could help patients with depression and anxiety, but the VA researchers say better studies were needed to prove it.

“The evidence for the effectiveness and safety of CES is sparse. Low-strength evidence suggests a beneficial association in patients with anxiety and depression. The intervention is probably safe, but strength of evidence is low,” wrote lead author Paul Shekelle, MD, of the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

In an editorial also published in the journal, a physician who uses CES therapy on his patients called the study findings “disappointing,” but said he and his colleagues would probably keep using the devices.

“I am not sure what my hospital will do with the information from this review. I know I will be less enthusiastic about recommending CES; however, I doubt that we will stop using it,” wrote Wayne Jonas, MD, of Samueli Integrative Health Programs in Alexandria, VA.

“When one of my patients, who had chronic pain, depression, and insomnia, finished her first CES treatment, she said she loved it. ‘I felt really relaxed,’ she said. ‘Can I have one of these at home?’ Our policy is to have patients try the treatment in the clinic at least 3 times. If it improves pain, depression, or insomnia, the patient can apply to get a home machine.”

The Food and Drug Administration first approved the use of CES in 1978 to treat depression, anxiety and insomnia. Because of that initial approval, the CES devices on the market today have not been required to prove their safety and effectiveness. The devices can be easily purchased online, but a prescription is required in the U.S.