Brain-zapping devices treat pain, anxiety, insomnia

David Heitz


I had no idea.

Devices that literally zap the brain with electricity have been around since 1960.

The therapy is called cranial electrical stimulation, or CES. Active-duty service members can even get CES treatment free.

In an era where people suffering from pain, anxiety and insomnia want to avoid addictive medicines such as opioids (Percocet) and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Ativan), CES treatment is burgeoning in popularity.

A study published in Annals of Internal Medicine concludes the devices are safe and that there is some evidence to show they are effective in treating anxiety and depression.

Fibromyalgia, headache, and joint pain sufferers typically do not find relief with CES, the paper concluded.

The research, a review by Veterans Administration doctors, analyzed approximately three dozen previous studies.

Research used small samples

The researchers admit those studies were less than sound science; therefore, their research could be flawed, too.

“Most trials had small sample sizes and short durations; all had high risk of bias due to inadequate blinding.”

In other words, people in the study knew whether they were getting the treatment or not. It’s hard to come up with a placebo for an electrical current to the brain.

In an accompanying editorial, a doctor in a military hospital expresses surprise at the study’s findings.

Dr. Wayne Jonas explains he has seen great efficacy with the CES devices.

“We need more non-drug approaches for these conditions,” he wrote. “I work in a military hospital, where active-duty patients can get a CES device for free and those not on active duty can get one with a $300 copayment.

The machines cost the hospital about $1,500 each, Jonas said. The justification for the machines came from the FDA clearing the CES devices for marketing.

Plus, a federal survey reported they are useful, he said.

“That survey of more than 1000 military patients had less than a 20 percent response rate, but most reported improvement (less than 25 percent effectiveness) in depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder, insomnia, or pain.”

The clinic sought demonstrations of the machines and then bought two of them. Third-year medical residents received training on their use.

“Although some were skeptical, many patients and physicians liked having a nondrug option that, at least on the surface, seemed safe,” the doctor wrote.

Patients can use brain zappers at home

“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?’”

He said patients are required to try the machine three times. If all goes well, they can get a machine for use at home.

Jonas goes on to say he expects his hospital will continue to use the machines despite the researchers’ findings, but with less vigor.

“After being trained on the CES device, one resident at our clinic said, ‘Oh, I get it. This is sort of like forced mindfulness.’ He may be right,” Jonas reported.

“We do not know the mechanism of action, so the effects may be achievable with self-care approaches that are less expensive and less passive.

“Clearly, we need to know more on how it works, not only compared with sham CES but also with other approaches, both drug- and nondrug-based. Who will pay for that research is uncertain.”

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO

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