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How does Pulsed Electromagnetic Field work?

a cell's mitochondria

Over the last ten years, Pulsed electromagnetic field (Pulsed EMF or PEMF) has become more popular as a therapeutic modality for managing pain.  It is used in many chiropractic clinics, sports medicine clinics, physical therapy offices, and other outpatient physical medicine centers.  Even non-professionals (everyday people) use PEMF for self treatment, since it is deemed relatively safe compared to most other therapeutic modalities such as electrical stim and ultrasound, and PEMF devices can be purchased directly by consumers without a doctor's prescription.  In other words, pulsed EMF has established itself as a safe consumer product.

So what does Pulsed EMF do?

As mentioned in previous articles, there are many published studies in the medical literature that demonstrate that PEMF has therapeutic benefit, particularly in pain reduction and wound healing.  However, researchers have yet to identify the precise parameters of the magnetic field that are ideal for treatment.  Magnetic field strength, frequency, pulse rate, type of waveform, and treatment duration are the main variables in PEMF treatment.  The good news is that Pulsed EMF is very safe, so the worst that can happen, if the treatment parameter used isn't optimal, is no damage and no effects to cells.  It's like being able to test something on you and not incur any bad consequences if you choose the wrong settings.

When Pulsed EMF is at a setting that produces a therapeutic effect, such as pain reduction and increased circulation, the question becomes, what exactly does it do?  How does Pulsed EMF work?

At this point, researchers are still trying to determine more precisely how PEMF acts on the body.

There are several proposed models to explain the therapeutic effects of pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy, although the exact mechanisms are not fully understood. Some of the proposed models include:

Cellular Effects Model: This model suggests that PEMF therapy affects cellular processes by inducing changes in cell membrane permeability, intracellular signaling pathways, gene expression, and protein synthesis. These cellular changes may lead to various therapeutic effects, such as improved tissue healing, reduced inflammation, and enhanced cellular function.

Bioelectromagnetic Model: According to this model, PEMF therapy influences the body's bioelectromagnetic field, which plays a crucial role in regulating physiological processes. By applying external electromagnetic fields, PEMF therapy may modulate the body's electromagnetic environment, leading to therapeutic effects such as pain relief, improved circulation, and enhanced tissue repair.  It proposes that in a diseased or injured state, the bioelectromagnetic field of the affected tissue is disturbed, and PEMF restores it.

Ion Resonance Model: This model proposes that PEMF therapy affects biological systems by interacting with ions and ion channels in cells and tissues. The electromagnetic fields generated by PEMF devices may alter the movement of ions across cell membranes, affecting cellular electrical activity, metabolism, and communication. These ion-related effects could contribute to the therapeutic benefits of PEMF therapy.  This model is based on the fact that magnetic fields  can alter the flow of electrons in a conductor, and the human body is a fluid conductor of electrical charges.

Free Radical Scavenging Model: Some researchers suggest that PEMF therapy may exert antioxidant effects by scavenging free radicals and reducing oxidative stress in cells and tissues. By neutralizing reactive oxygen species (ROS), PEMF therapy could protect cells from oxidative damage and promote tissue healing and repair.

Nitric Oxide Model: Nitric oxide (NO) is a signaling molecule involved in regulating blood flow, inflammation, and tissue repair. Some studies propose that PEMF therapy may stimulate the production of NO in endothelial cells, leading to vasodilation, improved circulation, and enhanced tissue oxygenation. This NO-mediated effect could contribute to the cardiovascular and tissue-healing benefits of PEMF therapy.

These proposed models provide theoretical frameworks for understanding how PEMF therapy may exert its therapeutic effects on the body. However, more research is needed to validate these models and elucidate the precise mechanisms of action underlying PEMF therapy in different clinical applications.

In the meantime, it is fortunate that PEMF can be successfully used for various health conditions without risk of injury, even though its exact mechanism of action is still not well understood at this time.