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Published in the Albany Democrat-Herald, April 5, 2008 issue:

Zapping brain can ease illnesses

Some say the electrotherapy device also helps with pains.

By Alex Paul

For more than a decade, Melissa Yates’ life has been a series of highs and lows.

The 23-year-old Albany resident has wrestled with mental health issues since she was 12. Many days have been filled with anxiety, depression, insomnia — even thoughts of suicide.

A few months ago, Yates learned about a device called Alpha-Stim, an electrotherapy device that sends small amounts of electrical current through one’s body to induce a feeling of calm and to assist with the healing of minor physical injuries.

Yates said she was struggling to deal with her issues, when out of desperation, she undertook an Internet search for treatments of anxiety and learned about Alpha-Stim.

“I found a link to Allevia Health (the local distributor) and I was blown away, really shocked that they are in Corvallis,” Yates said. “I called their office and told them I always knew that one day, there would be a way to treat mental illness without the use of drugs.”

Electrotherapy stimulation devices are also manufactured by other companies. The principle of using electricity to treat medical conditions has been traced to ancient Rome when torpedo fish — which produce a form of electricity — were used to treat headaches and other pains.

Alpha-Stim can be acquired only with a prescription. Yates bought her unit on a rent-to-own plan, paying $89 per month for five months. Because it has helped reduce the amount of medication she was taking, she considers it cost-effective.

“I feel like I’m experiencing things in life for the first time,” Yates said.

Yates said virtually all of her issues — emotional depression, paranoia, racing thoughts, insomnia, uncontrollable laughter, anger, mood swings — have at least decreased since she started using the device three months ago.

Alpha-Stim operates with one 9-volt battery. The user attaches a clip to each earlobe and adjusts the electrical output. Sessions last from 20 to 60 minutes and users need to find the right stimulus level for themselves.

“The current stimulates serotonin in the brain,” Yates said. “Unlike prescription medicine, it can be used every day. I started out using it every day and then went every other day. I have tried acupuncture and it didn’t work for me. It doesn’t hurt.”

Yates said the device has completely changed her life.

“I can’t even put it into words,” Yates said. “I feel like I woke up in someone else’s life. I’m now ready to move my life forward.”

Snake oil or medical blessing

When Corvallis physician Karen Weisman first heard about electrotherapy stimulation, she thought “it’s a bunch of hogwash.”

Weisman is a 1992 graduate of internal medicine from Northwestern University in Illinois.

“I was at a medical conference and one of the breakout sessions was about alternative care, which included the Alpha-Stim,” Weisman said. “I let them put it on my ears and I thought it was just mind over matter.”

Weisman said her doubts lessened after she spoke with colleagues who were prescribing the device. Their patients— many of whom had suffered severe migraines for years — said it worked.

That was seven years ago, and Weisman is now a believer. She says as many as 60 of her patients use electrotherapy stimulation for migraines, insomnia and relief of symptoms of addiction recovery such as anxiety.

“I have one patient who seldom slept more than three hours per night for most of his adult life,” Weisman said. “He used Alpha-Stim for three weeks and didn’t see any improvement. After three weeks and one day, he slept for six hours. He now regularly sleeps for six hours per night.”

Weisman said the public rightfully should be skeptical about possible medical scams.

“There’s a lot of stuff out there right now,” Weisman said. “Patients come to me with reams of stuff they’ve found on the Internet. It’s hard to tell the snake oil from the real stuff, but my confirmation about Alpha-Stim comes from people who aren’t selling it. It’s my patients who make me a believer.”

Weisman said many of her patients with migraines require fewer medication prescriptions.

Minor side effects

Jay Halaj and Melora Geyer at Allevia Health are Alpha-Stim distributors in Oregon and Washington and also work with the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Defense.

Halaj said the device, which costs from $500 to $800, is prescribed by a variety of health professionals from general family practitioners to psychologists and psychiatrists, who use it in addition to their therapy sessions.

“We encourage people to set the current at a comfortable rate,” Halaj said. “There have been reports that if the current is set too high, it can cause dizziness or nausea. Simply turn it down. It produces only a very small amount of electricity. Many patients say they enjoy the sensation.”

Halaj said the current stimulates the brain to produce alpha rhythms that induce a feeling of calm or relaxation.

“People sleep better, deeper and longer,” Geyer said. “They often now sleep through the night. Some people who haven’t slept through the night in years, say it works.”

Geyer added that the devices are also used by many professional sports teams to help treat minor injuries.

Alpha-Stim isn’t intended to replace medications, Halij said, but it is effective when used in addition to them.

More than 55 clinical trials indicate use of the device provides at least minimal results for 80 to 90 percent of its users.

“For some people, a 25 percent reduction in pain can mean the difference in whether or not they can hold a job,” Geyer said.

The military is studying Alpha-Stim for treatment of post traumatic stress disorder.

Halaj said it takes about 30 minutes to teach someone how to use the device. It also comes with a DVD and customers are encouraged to call or drop by the office with further questions.

According to the company’s website, one out of every 506 people may experience a mild headache and one out of 910 may experience a skin rash at the electrode sites. After more than 24 years of clinical and home use, and 55 research studies, no other significant side effects have been registered.

In addition to tests by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the National Institute of Health is studying electrotherapy stimulation for the use by breast cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy treatments.

Electrotherapy stimulation is also being looked at for the treatment of pain associated with fibromyalgia.