hometownfocus.us | By Kelly Grinsteinner
It fits in the palm of your hand or easily hangs from your neck and is no larger than a cell phone. The wires coming from the small device look like a set of earbuds, but the ends are clips bearing tiny cotton rings inside of each. Once the cotton rings are dampened with a conducting solution, the clips are placed on the earlobes.
When attached and in use, the device delivers a natural level of microcurrent through the brain to stimulate and modulate specific groups of nerve cells. The microcurrent is tiny—just millionths of an ampere—and so gentle that most people don’t even feel it. This electrical waveform modulates the cells’ signals to return to baseline, normal functioning. In other words, this electrotherapy works its powers.
The device is called an Alpha-Stim. “It’s an alternative to medication for anxiety and depression because it has the same effect,” said Janis Allen, MSW, LICSW and CEO of Range Mental Health Center (RMHC). “By using electrodes that are put on your ears, it stimulates your brain to increase serotonin levels.”
Allen specializes in crisis and trauma processing, specifically eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). She first came across the Alpha-Stim while attending the National Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing International Association (EMDRIA) conference in Minneapolis in 2016.
“I had to try this device. I wanted to see if what they claimed was true,” she said about her piqued curiosity. “I went early one morning before meetings and sat for 30 minutes to experience the Alpha-Stim machine.”
Allen said her sense of well-being was immediately increased. “I felt great. It increased my focus,” she confirmed. “I also talked to a veteran at a booth next to them and he highly endorsed the option.”
Having such a good experience, Allen returned to RMHC excited to share her experience. “I was working at the Wellstone Center at the time and thought we could use this device for short-term stabilization of our folks experiencing mental health crisis,” she explained. “It could help them self-regulate and increase their sense of calm and well-being.” Wellstone Center is a crisis residential program for individuals experiencing a mental health/emotional crisis. It is located at 214 Chandler Avenue Eveleth.
Allen’s request for RMHC to purchase the device was met with approval by a regional mental health initiative which bought them for the agency. Today, RMHC has about a dozen Alpha-Stim devices at its various locations.
“It’s a great replacement for medications, because so many people have adverse reactions to medication, side effects and so forth,” opined Becca Leaders, MS, LMFT, current clinical director of mobile crisis services and Wellstone Crisis Center. “What this does is [it] goes through the central nervous system in the ear lobes to the back of the brain and addresses the issue the same way medications would but without the side effects.”
The Alpha-Stim is an individual unit that each person uses or wears for a 20-, 40- or 60-minute session, depending how often one uses it and his/her comfort level. “They can use this and do whatever they want to do—have it on during a therapy session, during group, while watching TV or making dinner,” Leaders noted. “It’s super simple.”
The device works well for people in crisis or experiencing increased anxiety or depression. It can also help ease insomnia and assist persons with PTSD. “Research has been done with veterans on using the Alpha-Stim to address anxiety and depression with great results,” said Allen. “It can decrease the need for medication and increase an overall sense of well-being.”
Results can include significantly reduced pain, anxiety, depression, or insomnia—all without medication. Results are often immediate and long lasting. Other bonuses include no lasting side effects, no risk of addiction and no danger of interaction with medications. Most people experience significant relief after a single treatment, according to Leaders.
“We hear people talk about DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) or mindfulness, and how mindfulness is supposed to be living in the present moment, enjoying it, being very calm, not letting things in or out of your brain as far as racing thoughts and just really slowing everything down,” she explained. “My description of this is that it forces mindfulness. Slow down, chill out. It gives you that mindfulness of hanging out on the back deck or being at the cabin and just tuning into that moment.”
The calm that comes over one is akin to a nice warm 20-second hug that releases the chemical oxytocin and lowers blood pressure and heart rate, noted Allen. This calms the emotion center in the brain down to increase self-regulation and increase a sense of wellbeing.
“It’s not supposed to hurt in any way, shape or form. It’s meant to be very relaxing,” added Leaders. “You feel nothing at first, then suddenly you start to feel a bit floaty. It’s supposed to be very ‘ahhh.’” The individual sets the level of microcurrent. A sense of dizziness or bed spins is too high and should be reduced for effectiveness.
“The goal is to find that calming number and going higher does not mean you get better results. You have to decide what’s comfortable for you,” explained Leaders. “There is no right or wrong way, but if you experience a headache or nausea, put it back on for 20 minutes at a lower setting. It means your brain needs more time adjusting.”
Pain, insomnia and mood conditions—like anxiety and depression—are all controlled by the body’s central nervous system. The nervous system is comprised of billions of individual cells that communicate every sensation by conducting electrochemical signals between the cells in the body and brain.
Only two percent of the nervous system is chemical, yet we tend to try to alleviate pain with prescription medications which attempt to target an issue or imbalance in the body with the use of chemicals. Most of the nervous system—an enormous 98 percent—is electrical. Alpha-Stim’s electrotherapy is an alternative and effective way to treat the body rather than by using chemicals in the form of pills or injections. With continued use, the effects of the device can be even greater, increasing cumulatively over time as cell function becomes more readily modulated.
“Everyone is different. Some choose to wear a device all day,” acknowledged Leaders. “…For someone who struggle with anxiety or depression every single minute of every single day, using this might be a Bahamas vacation.”
Allen said results and feedback from RMHC clients who’ve used the device has been positive. “They wanted to use it again because it helped them feel better,” she said. “I’ve had people come in in crisis and have asked if it’s something they want to try as a means of de-escalating the crisis. It’s been helpful. Plus, people can end up not having to take as much medication to treat their mental health symptoms. … It’s a good treatment option.”
Alpha-Stim can be used on its own or in conjunction with physical therapy, medication and other forms of pain management. It is also known for helping fight sleepless nights and the constant burden of stress.
“People have slept better after using one,” confirmed Allen. “I had one person come in with migraines and wasn’t sleeping. She started using one consistently at our appointments and her migraines went from once a week to once a month. She was sleeping better at night, which reduced her migraines and having to go the ER to get shots.”
According to Electromedical Products International, Inc. (EPII), the maker of Alpha-Stim, research has proven the device’s safety, impact and long-term effectiveness. Physician and patient surveys show that 90 percent of those who use the device experience significant relief when using it as a form of pain, anxiety, depression or insomnia treatment. This is supported by more than 100 completed, independent research studies and published reports, many of which were randomly controlled trials to ensure rigorous testing and clinically validated results.
Successful results have landed the Alpha-Stim in the hands of key healthcare providers. More than 200 Department of Defense (DoD) practitioners and over 92 Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals use the device with military personnel for acute, chronic and post-traumatic pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia treatment, according to EPII.
The device is ideal for those not wanting to take medications, Leaders stressed. “It really works best for those who are frustrated with medications and willing to try other things,” she expounded. “They find this is effective and has the nice benefit of not having to worry about any side effects.” Some are hesitant to try this form of treatment, which Leaders emphasized is simply an option—not a mandate.
“We ask if they want to try it and have a conversation on its use,” she said. “I’d say three out of four are typically willing to try it. If someone is treatment resistant, we could put it on, but they are likely too adverse for it to work. Those individuals are used to Benzos or narcotics for the quick, automatic control, which will work every time. However, it doesn’t require any use of coping skills, so no matter what, they will always return to that place.”
Medications are a temporary fix, whereas an Alpha-Stim could bring down the overall anxiety or depression levels so one is better throughout the day.
“If someone’s anxiety is always at an eight or nine, this brings it down to a six or seven overall—that’s the hope,” said Leaders. “It can help panic attacks, but the goal is more like a morning meditation use. This is the Zen you attempt to find when you have all those thoughts racing through your head. It takes things down a notch—makes one more functional, more stable, feeling more relaxed, slows down impulsivity to make better decisions. At least that’s the potential.”
Wellstone is a 24-hour residential center where RMHC offers crisis reduction as well as anxiety and depression reduction. Leaders said the Alpha-Stim serves the individuals there well and repeats that it all comes down to choice.
“It’s all about preferences—how high (of level), how long one uses it, how effective it is for you, what you use it in place of or in addition to,” she added. “Truly there is no right or wrong answer. It’s just something unique, different that’s out there as a treatment option.”