Power to heal: 'microcurrent' therapy on trial
When Anne Clark, an Australian pharmacist in her mid-50s, consulted a surgical podiatrist in Perth for pain relief from bunions on her feet, his only prognosis was surgery.
Having seen her mother suffer from a similar condition, and the after-effects of botched bunionectomies, Clark was averse to the procedure. That's when she started to research alternative cures for bunions, and chanced upon "microcurrent" therapy.
Since it was unavailable in Australia, except for its use in beauty treatments and for pain management, Clark came to Hong Kong in 2012 to undergo microcurrent therapy with physiotherapist Milly Ng at Central Physiotherapy & Sports Injury Clinic. Ten microcurrent sessions later, Clark's feet were back to normal.
Proponents of microcurrent treatments claim that every tissue in the human body has a unique electrical frequency, which gets disrupted by injury or disease. Mimicking the natural electrical frequency of our tissues, treatments use low electrical currents to restore the normal frequencies in human cells. This can help in nerve and muscle pain relief.
The treatments also stimulate an increase in adenosine triphosphate, an energy-bearing molecule that assists in the biochemical functioning of the body and increases protein synthesis, which facilitates tissue repair.
It was Italian neurophysicist Carlo Matteucci's discovery in 1830 of injured excitable biological tissues in the body generating direct electrical currents that set the precedent for microcurrent therapy.
Microcurrent therapy is be used to treat various conditions - macular degeneration (vision loss), nasal allergies, migraines, insomnia, hearing loss, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and spinal deformity without the need of medication, its proponents claim.
Proponents claim it can also treat conditions like spondylitis, sciatica, scoliosis, kyphosis, wry neck, frozen shoulder and knee injuries.
It gained recognition in the early 1980s, when athletes like Olympic track star Mary Decker and marathon runner Joan Benoit began benefiting from it.
According to Eyckle Chun-ho Wong, physiotherapy manager, Matilda International Hospital, the therapy has been used in Hong Kong for more than 30 years.
Unlike the more familiar transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation units that are used to suppress pain from injury, with no curative value, therapeutic microcurrent has been traditionally used for the healing of injury.
A microcurrent is a body current of just one millionth of an ampere intensity, or one millionth of the intensity of an AA cell battery. Its energy strength is so moderate that it takes about one million microcurrent machines to light up a 40-watt bulb.
This means there is no patient discomfort, or any sensation at all, during application. A treatment course typically involves several sessions and benefits accrue over time. It is safe, approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, and has no adverse effects. (It is not recommended for patients who have pacemakers, or those who are pregnant.)
A combination of therapies is usually applied for treating patients. Wong cites the example of a patient who came in with a sprained ankle, severe swelling and acute pain.
The use of microcurrent together with the RICE protocol (rest, ice compression and elevation) helped relieve 50 per cent of the swelling and pain after two days of treatment.
The patient continued to have microcurrent therapy around the ankle, after which the pain and swelling subsided within two weeks.
In a pilot study conducted by the Polytechnic University in 2006 to evaluate if the addition of microcurrent therapy could enhance the treatment effects of exercise therapy in the management of tennis elbow, researchers found the addition of microcurrent therapy to exercise didn't really enhance the treatment effect. But the study had a small sample size of just 16 subjects.
One of the researchers, Gladys Cheing, professor and associate head, department of rehabilitation sciences, at Polytechnic University, says: "If we get more patients, maybe we can see a group difference. According to different studies, microcurrent has been shown to be effective in promoting healing or regeneration of muscles, ligaments, tendons and cartilage."
"But most of these studies were done on animals. Some clinical [human] studies showed microcurrent can promote wound healing, relieve pain and reduce signs and symptoms in muscle damage."
A study conducted by Britain's Peninsula College of Medicine & Dentistry in 2012 suggested that microcurrent therapy can be effective in treating chronic tennis elbow, but this is dependent on parameters such as current intensity, frequency and treatment duration.
A physician using microcurrent therapy to treat Bell's palsy patients for paralysis in the 1980s serendipitously noticed his patients' faces becoming smoother and younger looking after a few sessions.
Since then, aestheticians have been using microcurrent's regenerative properties in body reconditioning and facial non-surgical contouring, toning and firming of ageing skin. Princess Diana was said to be a user.
As it can increase the release of adenosine triphosphate, the chemical fuel of human cells, by as much as 500 per cent, the body gets recharged, akin to charging a drained battery.
But microcurrent is a controversial treatment. The responsiveness of patients to microcurrent therapy varies depending on their condition.
While it has helped certain patients, there are others who haven't benefited from it. Along with a lack of extensive research, there have been issues with effective use of the electro-physical modality.
"It's important that doctors are able to identify the right therapeutic window for a particular patient," Cheing says. "The use of the right modality, if delivered at the wrong dosage could produce adverse effects. Also, the parameters adopted in microcurrent units vary. This may explain why there are negative results reported by clinicians or patients. It is difficult to find the right dosage for each patient, and the therapist gives up at a certain point.
"Therefore, some therapists and patients think that it does not work at all. We need more clinical research to demonstrate the effectiveness of the use of microcurrent. In particular, it is important to identify the right set of treatment parameters."
Ng has been practicing microcurrent therapy since 1992 and believes it requires a sound knowledge of anatomy and kinesiology, plus intuition and perseverance.
She says: "If you don't have the skill and the patience to trace the correct path, or locate the correct spot, treatment is futile. Because microcurrent cannot be sensed, patients have no idea whether it is working and the result is not instant. So it is not as popular as it should be."
Another deterrent could be the high treatment cost. A single session could cost between HK$1,000 for a sports injury to HK$3,500 for non-surgical correction of bunion or a facial rejuvenation.
But for someone like Clark who has benefited from it, the experience is invaluable. She says: "I had had a 'before' X-ray done prior to leaving for Hong Kong and, three months after treatment, I went for an 'after' image as a comparison.
"I sent both to my podiatrist and he was astonished with the results. Nobody can believe I ever had bunions. The treatment was worth every cent," she says.