For decades, treating medical conditions required prescription medication, physical therapy, or surgical intervention. But, medications commonly cause unpleasant side effects, and therapy takes time before patients experience results. Surgery poses many risks and complications, along with extensive recovery time. However, bioelectronic medicine is now a viable alternative.
The central nervous system receives and sends messages between muscles, organs, and other tissues to the brain. Inflammatory processes in the tissues are commonly treated with anti-inflammatory or immunosuppressive medications. But, the formulas are often expensive and may cause gastrointestinal problems. Suppressing the immune system leaves the patient susceptible to severe infections. Recently, researchers found a way to apply electrical stimulation to reduce inflammation.
Dr. Kevin Tracey and his associates were studying the effects of a chemical compound that showed promise in blocking inflammatory processes in the brain. The team noticed that simultaneously, inflammation was also suppressed in other body organs. The discovery provided valuable clues as to how the central nervous system interacts with the networks of nerves throughout the body.
The Inflammatory Process
When an injury or infection occurs in the body, nerves send signals to the brain using the vagus nerve. The brain sends signals back to the location using the same pathway, which triggers an inflammatory response. But, in rheumatoid arthritis and other disease processes, the communication system malfunctions. Dr. Tracey observed that this malfunction seems to be corrected by delivering electrical currents to the vagus nerve. The treatment has proven to be promising for treating rheumatoid arthritis. But, what is yet to be learned is whether electrical current treats the symptoms or truly cures the problem.
Sparks Military Interest
In light of Tracey’s discovery, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency branch of the U.S. Military began a program known as ElectRx. The DARPA project was designed to study the effects of electrical current treatments on a variety of medical conditions. Researchers are also interested in developing a means of delivering the current using external electrodes as a minimally invasive technique.
Bioelectronic medicine has proven useful for interrupting nerve signals that initiate pain or cause circulatory issues. The instances in which electrical current therapies can be helpful include:
- Back pain
- Circulatory disorders
- Diabetic neuropathy
- Diseases or ulcerations of the skin
- Muscle pain
- Reflex sympathetic dystrophy or RSD
- Temporomandibular joint syndrome or TMJ