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Johns Hopkins Pediatric

Electroacupuncture Treats Spasticity, Pain, Headaches and Nausea

November 16, 2016

Khaled Kebaish

Sravani Mehta treats Nelly Zusin with electroacupuncture.

When physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist Sravani Mehta was in her residency at the State University of New York (SUNY) Upstate, she took a tumble onto her right wrist during a ski trip. The fall left her with symptoms so debilitating and mysterious that she and her colleagues were at a loss to make sense of it.

Trained to interpret pain as coming either from a musculoskeletal or nerve source, Mehta realized that this injury didn’t have clear signs of either—some areas of her wrist were tender, while others had numbness or tingling.

“There was no real pattern,” she remembers. “It didn’t make any sense.”

As she cycled through different types of specialists, undergoing various imaging and lab tests, no clear diagnosis emerged. But one day, while she was training in electromyography and nerve conduction tests, a chance event nudged her toward an effective therapy. After asking a colleague to apply electrical stimulation to her wrist, she experienced complete relief, if only for a half hour.

While talking with Chinese physicians visiting SUNY for volunteer observerships, she had a sudden epiphany—electroacupuncture, which delivers electrical current through needles to stimulate specific acupuncture points throughout the body, could offer the holistic help that her body needed to heal. After just a single session, Mehta decided to train in this treatment modality after her residency ended in 2014.

Now, as a practicing clinician who treats patients with brain injury or stroke, Mehta regularly offers electroacupuncture to those who might benefit. This treatment can make a significant, positive difference for spasticity, pain, headaches and nausea. Electroacupuncture offers an alternative to the medications typically used to treat these conditions, which often come with a host of undesirable side effects.

Electroacupuncture isn’t an appropriate option for everyone, Mehta explains. The treatment can be time-consuming—typically hourlong appointments two to three times a week for at least several weeks—and often isn’t covered by insurance. It’s also contraindicated for patients with seizure disorders or those with implanted devices that can be affected by outside electrical pulses, such as pacemakers.

Despite the bias that many Westerners have against “alternative” treatments, Mehta says, her patients in general have been very open to trying electroacupuncture—many have exhausted the options that Western medicine has to offer and are eager to have another. However, leaving it as a last choice can make effective treatment more challenging.

“I’m always encouraging colleagues to send me their patients sooner,” Mehta says. “There’s no reason that electroacupuncture can’t be an earlier option in the treatment timeline.”

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