Treating anxiety: the Alpha-Stim
, Telegraph.co.uk August 2, 2010
Patrick Strudwick tests a new device that relieves anxiety and manages pain via ‘electrotherapy’.
Treating anxiety: Patrick Strudwick tries out the Alpha-Stim Photo: Andrew Crowley
I am sitting at home with two electrodes attached to my earlobes. Electric currents are passing into my brain and down my spinal column. I feel like Frankenstein’s monster.
To the casual observer, it might appear that I am being subjected to torture. In fact, I am attempting to quell my predisposition to anxiety, which I have managed to elevate beyond the realms of mere psychological symptom into a complete lifestyle. Electricity, it seems, could be the answer – the new Valium, if you will.
The machine is called Alpha-Stim SCS. It is a small device with two wires that clip on to your ears. It uses “cranial electrotherapy stimulation” – 50-100 microamps of electricity (a microamp is a millionth of an amp) – to increase alpha brain waves. These waves occur at the frequency of about 8-12 cycles per second, or hertz, compared with the “normal”, or beta, state of 13-25 hertz, which is the state in which most of us spend our working days. Alpha waves induce relaxed, yet alert, states that, it is claimed, calm the central nervous system.
Twelve million people around the world have used Alpha-Stim over the past 20 years. The American military have used it for five years. Its applications are astonishingly wide. It has been found to be effective in the treatment of anxiety, stress and depression, addictions, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and insomnia. The device costs £299, while its two-pronged sister product, the Alpha-Stim PPM, is used for chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, is £199. So why is it only now being launched in Britain?
“Money,” says Dr Daniel Kirsch, its American inventor, on the phone from Texas. “I started the company in 1981 with $25,000. I don’t have the capacity of huge pharmaceuticals to market this product to every doctor in the world. But we have more research papers on Alpha-Stim than any therapeutic device in the world. This is what happens when a scientist rather than a businessman starts a company.”
What happens when you switch the machine on, however, is much less predictable. The accompanying leaflet warns that you may feel “heavy, groggy, lightheaded or nauseous”. This can last, it says, from five minutes to the entire duration of the 20- or 60-minute session.
I switch it on. Immediately, there is a prickly sensation in my earlobes, as if, every second or so, a teasel is brushed against them. Moments later, giddiness takes over at a level precisely equivalent to three cocktails on an empty stomach. The dizziness persists for the full 20 minutes. Afterwards, I don’t feel relaxed, yet alert. I feel drowsy.
“These effects won’t last,” promises Dr Kirsch. I don’t believe him.
Later that day, however, I go to the hospital for some unrelated tests. Normally such a scenario would unleash hypochondria. But none of the physical symptoms of anxiety surface – no tense muscles or thumping heart. My mind still taunts me in the waiting room, though. I plan my funeral.
The next day, I take Dr Kirsch’s advice and try a 60-minute session. This time, the lightheadedness is at a one-cocktail level, but it comes with a hefty dose of nausea. This may be the result of the Prosecco I’d quaffed the previous evening.
When hung-over, I normally spend the day alternating between paranoia and sweating. But, once again, the anxiety never materialises.
“The effects aren’t just instant but also cumulative,” explains Dr Kirsch. Indeed, the accompanying literature recommends regular treatments for several weeks.
The following day, there is almost no dizziness, no nausea and, despite stress-inducing negotiations at work, I am about half as anxious and twice as alert as usual. It seems to be helping. But does it really work on all the aforementioned conditions?
I phone Dr Bob Lister, chairman of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition at London Metropolitan University. He specialises in fibromyalgia, the debilitating and notoriously tricky-to-treat pain condition.
“I’m always sceptical about revolutionary new treatments for this, that and the other,” he says. “But there have been about 200 papers supporting this. When I gave the Alpha-Stim to members of my local fibromyalgia group, within a few days reports were coming back of it decreasing not just pain but other symptoms associated with the condition, such as anxiety and insomnia. In the end, 80 per cent found it beneficial. One woman had ordered a wheelchair because she couldn’t walk more than a few steps without being in crippling pain and, after using the device, she cancelled the chair.“
After learning about the US Army’s use of Alpha-Stim, particularly for PTSD, Dr Lister gave a presentation about the device at Headley Court, the British Armed Forces rehabilitation centre in Surrey. “As a result,” says Dr Lister, “they bought a dozen Alpha-Stim machines, and they now want another dozen because they’ve found them so effective.”
Dr Kirsch explains: “One of the reasons the military like this product is that many of the psychopharmacological approaches to anxiety have side effects that impair alertness.”
Dr Lesley Parkinson, a clinical psychologist, was one of the first clinicians to use it in Britain.
“I’ve looked at the EEG scans [which record electrical activity in the brain] on patients before and after using the machine, and you can clearly see that it positively affects brain waves. I’ve found it so beneficial that now, if someone comes to me with generalised anxiety disorder, I would suggest they try Alpha-Stim before any medication,” she says.
Dr Parkinson does, however, recognise its limitations. “If, for example, someone had just experienced a deeply traumatic event, I wouldn’t recommend it. In those instances, it could never replace talking therapies.”
Indeed, the physiological calm that the device induces ameliorates rather than removes anxious thoughts. Those who fear life are, according to Bertrand Russell, already three parts dead. But after a week on Alpha-Stim, I appear to be at least two parts alive.
*Alpha Stim SCS, £299, and PPM, £199, are available from www.themicrocurrentsite.co.uk.