Beaming pain relief

Cold War technology studied for multiple ills

A Soviet technology developed during the Cold War to keep short-range military communications secure may someday provide relief from hard-to-treat conditions such as nerve pain, intense itching, and nausea caused by chemotherapy. And, with the support of a $4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Temple University School of Medicine scientists are the only group in the United States now investigating this alternative therapy.

The four-year Research Center of Excellence grant was awarded by the NIH's Center for Alternative and Complimentary Medicine.

Millimeter wave therapy, which directs a low-intensity electromagnetic beam to the skin, has been used for more than 25 years in Eastern Europe, where it is credited with alleviating more than 50 different conditions, ranging from heart disease to skin wounds and even cancer. Doctors there believe that the waves boost the immune system, act as an anti-inflammatory, and provide sedation and pain relief, all with virtually no side effects.

While the therapy remains largely unknown in the West, Marvin Ziskin, M.D., professor of radiology and medical physics at Temple, first encountered it in the early 1990s on a trip to the former Soviet Union. Ziskin was intrigued but extremely skeptical about the alleged power of millimeter wave therapy because only positive results had been reported.

"Although there were many studies of millimeter wave therapy in the Russian literature, their research doesn't go through the same scrutiny as ours," he said.

Over the next decade, Ziskin and his team of Russian and other scientists subjected the claims of success to critical scientific evaluation. They wanted to learn how millimeter waves affected biological conditions and uncover any possible undocumented side effects.

Numerous studies, two of which were supported by grants from the NIH, eventually convinced Ziskin that millimeter wave therapy could one day be used in Western Medicine.

"We found that millimeter waves reduce pain in laboratory animals, stimulate the immune system and slow the progression of skin melanomas, without damage to the skin or other harmful side effects. It's a painless, non-invasive, easily tolerated therapy," said Ziskin.

The new grant funds three major projects.

The first, led by Stanislav Alexeev, Ph.D., will examine how millimeter waves physically interact with the skin. Ultimately, such information will help determine the best amount and frequency of millimeter waves to deliver for different health conditions.

Mahendra Logani, Ph.D., is leading the second project, looking at the mechanisms by which millimeter waves and drugs modulate the immune system. The hope is that the findings will lead to improvements in the efficacy and tolerability of chemotherapy.

The third project, led by Alexander Radzievsky, M.D., Ph.D., will investigate the ability of millimeter wave treatment to relieve nerve pain and intense itching.

"We want to find out exactly what happens in the body during and after exposure to millimeter waves, an obligatory step before the treatment can be introduced in people," said Ziskin.

Eastern European doctors directly apply millimeter waves to skin lesions and acupuncture points. It's also common to beam them onto a diseased organ or a troublesome joint.

Absorbed very rapidly by the skin, millimeter waves appear to initiate a response in peripheral nerve endings. Ziskin's working hypothesis is that as waves reach these nerve endings, a signal is conveyed to the nervous system to modulate neural activity, in the process activating various biological effects. In one possible scenario, millimeter waves trigger the release of opioids that are known to be involved in sedation, pain relief and modulation of the immune system.

"Applying the waves to points on the skin with the highest density of nerves appears to work best. Using this approach, under strict double-blind conditions, we've produced evidence of pain relief in experimental animal models as well as in a small group of human volunteers," said Ziskin.

In addition to his work with low-intensity therapeutic waves, Ziskin consults with the Army and Air Force on the use of high-intensity millimeter waves for anti-terrorism purposes. Unlike low-intensity waves, which are painless and create little heat, high intensity waves act as a non-lethal deterrent that raises skin temperature to the point of severe pain without causing burns.

Despite his self-described skeptical nature, Ziskin is upbeat about the future therapeutic possibilities of millimeter waves.

"The biological effects of millimeter waves are real," he declared.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 30 Apr 2016
    Published on All rights reserved.