Bioelectromagnetically Based Therapies (partial)

Key Points

  • Pulsed electromagnetic fields are used therapeutically in medicine, showing enhanced healing of bone fractures and stimulation of bone formation.
  • The use of electromagnetic fields in cancer is still in preclinical stages.
  • Lab and animal studies have found both beneficial and harmful effects of electromagnetic fields on cancer.
  • Some researchers suggest that electromagnetic field therapy has potential use in decreasing the amount of chemotherapy required and providing an alternative for dealing with chemotherapy resistance.

Bioelectromagnetically based therapies “involve the unconventional use of electromagnetics, such as pulsed fields, magnetic fields, or alternating current or direct current fields.”1

Research in bioelectromagnetics focuses both on the potentially carcinogenic effects of environmental exposure to electromagnetic fields—such as those generated by power lines or cell phones—and on beneficial therapeutic effects. Pulsed electromagnetic fields are commonly used therapeutically in medicine, showing enhanced healing of bone fractures and stimulation of bone formation.2 Research on therapeutic electromagnetic field effects on cancer is still in preclinical stages.

Treating the Cancer

Working against cancer growth or spread, improving survival, or working with other treatments or therapies to improve their anticancer action

Measuring Bioelectromagnetic Fields

Medical systems such as Traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic medicine have for centuries embraced the concept that electromagnetic fields underlie the pattern and organization of biological systems. In recent history, several researchers have attempted to show the existence of these fields in living organisms.

Studies between the 1940s and 1970s found evidence of certain electromagnetic patterns that seem to allow for atypical growth of cells in humans. However, one of the lead researchers was strongly criticized for his work in this field, and others have not pursued this track of study in cancer patients.3

For a more thorough description of measurement of the electromagnetic fields in living organisms, see chapter 15 of Abrams’ and Weil’s book, Integrative Oncology, 2nd Edition.

According to TRC Natural Medicines, insufficient reliable evidence is available to rate the effectiveness of magnets in cancer.4

Regarding electromagnetic fields, lab and animal studies have found the following effects—both beneficial and harmful—of electromagnetic fields on cancer:

  • Inhibited tumor growth and angiogenesis5
  • Enhanced tumor growth6
  • Reversed resistance to chemotherapy and enhanced effectiveness of chemotherapy. Some researchers suggest that electromagnetic field therapy has potential use in decreasing the amount of chemotherapy required and providing an alternative for dealing with chemotherapy resistance.7

Managing Side Effects and Promoting Wellness

Managing or relieving side effects or symptoms, reducing treatment toxicity, supporting quality of life or promoting general well-being

Clinical Evidence

Pulsed electromagnetic fields (PEMF): Several studies and reviews show reduced pain, opioid use and inflammation after surgery:8

  • Substantially lower pain scores and less narcotic use among people undergoing breast reconstruction9 or aesthetic breast augmentation10 or reduction11 in small RCTs, but no differences in pain score or use of pain medication in one small RCT of breast augmentation12
  • Substantially lower pain scores, less analgesic use, and better wound healing with no wound seepage (exudate), reddening (erythema), or swelling (edema) among women undergoing elective C-section13
  • Less inflammation after TRAM flap breast reconstruction14 and breast reduction surgery.15

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): A review and meta-analysis showed reduced blood levels of proinflammatory cytokines,16 and a clinical trial found reduced pain intensity, lower opioid use and fewer requests for chest radiographs after coronary artery bypass surgery.17 A review found improved postoperative pain in urology patients.18 19

Patients undergoing standard phoracotomy for resectable lung cancer who received transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) reported lower pain scores and less use of both morphine and non-opioid pain medications, plus better respiratory function in a small RCT.20

Less dry mouth among people who had completed radiotherapy with or without chemotherapy for head and neck squamous cell carcinoma with acupuncture-like transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (ALTENS) compared to baseline in a small trial21

Patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery who received TENS immediately after admission to the intensive care unit reported less pain in a mid-sized RCT.22

Electroacupuncture: Randomized trials showed evidence of reduced nausea, vomiting and pain after thoracic surgery.23

Transcutaneous electrical acupoint stimulation (TEAS):

  • A randomized study found that TEAS use with general anesthesia led to stable blood pressure during surgery, reduced analgesic use and better pain relief compared to general anesthesia alone..24
  • Less surgical pain and use of opioid analgesic during colorectal cancer resection surgery, and earlier anal exhaust and oral feeding after surgery, but no change in time to ambulation or hospital stay with transcutaneous electrical acupoint stimulation (TEAS) with patient controlled epidural analgesia and TAP block by injection compared to analgesia alone, and earlier anal exhaust time compared to analgesic and TAP block in a mid-sized RCT25
  • Lower cancer pain scores with nine days over 18 months of Scrambler therapy, a patient-specific electrocutaneous nerve stimulation device, compared to baseline in a small uncontrolled study26

Magnetic devices: One preliminary study of the effectiveness of a magnetic device for breast cancer-related hot flashes showed that the magnet therapy was significantly less effective than a placebo device in reducing hot flash frequency and interference with daily activities and improving quality of life.27 In other words, the placebeo (no treatment) was better than the magnet therapy.

Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) "is a non-invasive, painless brain stimulation treatment that uses direct electrical currents to stimulate specific parts of the brain.".28

  • Anxiety: modest evidence of benefit
    • Enhanced responses to exposure therapy among people being treated for anxiety-related disorders compared to sham in a small RCT29
    • No impact on pain or anxiety among young, healthy volunteers during the cold pressor test (CPT) compared to sham in a small RCT30  
    • Better scores on anxiety among people with major depressive disorder with insomnia compared to sham in a small RCT31
    • Enhanced reductions in anxiety, worry, and anxiety sensitivity from the Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment of Emotional Disorders (UP) among people suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and comorbid depression compared to UP alone, both after treatment and three months later, in a small RCT32
    • Fewer anxiety symptoms among people with post-traumatic stress disorder compared to sham in a small RCT33
    • No improvement in anxiety among people with generalized anxiety disorder compared to sham in a small RCT34
    • Better physiologic response to a threat and task performance among women with high trait anxiety compared to sham in a small RCT35  
    • Lower perceived extent of fear, anxiety, and sadness (compared to other negative or positive feelings) when vieweing short video clips eliciting different emotions compared to sham in a small RCT36
    • Better scores on anxiety among people with primary fibromyalgia compared to sham in a small RCT37
    • Better scores on anxiety among women with fibromyalgia compared to sham in a small RCT38
    • Lower anxiety among adult burn patients in an RCT3940
  • Depression: good evidence of benefit
    • Modestly lower depression scores, and substantially better response and remission, compared to sham treatment among people with an acute depressive episode in a meta-analysis of RCTs41
    • Better scores on depression among people with major depressive disorder with insomnia compared to sham in a small RCT42
    • Fewer depressive symptoms among people with post-traumatic stress disorder compared to sham in a small RCT43
    • No improvement in mood symptoms of stress, affectivity or depression among people with generalized anxiety disorder compared to sham in a small RCT44
    • Fewer depression symptoms among people with chronic low back pain at six-week follow-up compared to sham in a small RCT45
    • Better scores on depression among people with primary fibromyalgia compared to sham in a small RCT46
    • Better scores on depression among women with fibromyalgia compared to sham in a small RCT47
    • Lower perceived extent of fear, anxiety, and sadness (compared to other negative or positive feelings) when vieweing short video clips eliciting different emotions compared to sham in a small RCT48
    • Recommended as a third-line treatment for major depressive disorder in clinical practice guidelines from the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments49
  • Fatigue: preliminary evidence of benefit
    • Fewer fatigue symptoms among stroke survivors with high severity of fatigue with tDCS compared to sham, with the greatest improvement among those with the lowest anxiety scores prior to stimulation in a small RCT50
  • Pain: modest evidence of benefit
    • Lower pain scores among people with multiple sclerosis with chronic neuropathic pain compared to sham in a small RCT51
    • No impact on pain among young, healthy volunteers during the cold pressor test (CPT) compared to sham in a small RCT52  
    • Less pain interference and pain disability among people with chronic low back pain at six-week follow-up compared to sham in a small RCT53
    • Better scores on pain among people with primary fibromyalgia compared to sham in a small RCT54
    • Better scores on pain and disease-specific measures among women with fibromyalgia compared to sham in a small RCT55
  • Sleep difficulty: preliminary evidence of benefit
    • Better scores on sleep quality among people with major depressive disorder with insomnia compared to sham in a small RCT56
  • Stress: preliminary evidence of benefit
    • Fewer PTSD symptoms among people with post-traumatic stress disorder compared to sham in a small RCT57
    • Fewer physical symptoms of stress but no improvement in mood symptoms of stress among people with generalized anxiety disorder compared to sham in a small RCT58
    • Lower skin conductance reaction to a sustained threat paradigm compared to sham in a small RCT5960

Cautions

Some evidence from phase I human clinical trials shows that electromagnetic field therapy used with chemotherapy is safe and has minimal toxicity.61

Written by Laura Pole, RN, MSN, OCNS, and Nancy Hepp, MS; most recent update on September 18, 2021. Note: BCCT has not conducted an independent review of research of bioelectromagnetically based therapies. This summary draws from the article by Lutgendorf, Mullen-Houser and Deumic and other sources as noted.

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