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Sleep Better: A Promising New Treatment For Insomnia

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Have you ever come across a safe, effective treatment that worked really well and, for some unfathomable reason, wasn't all that well-known to the general public?

That's how I felt when I stumbled upon hypnotherapy back in med school. It worked; its side effects were minimal to nonexistent; and it wasn't used all that much. Go figure.

Recently, I came across another such treatment modality. It's a sleek little gadget called the Fisher Wallace Cranial Stimulator. It has two sponge electrodes that you wet, then place on top of your sideburns under a headband to hold them fast. You turn it on, and it sends a tiny 1-4 milliamp current for 20 minutes, during which you can keep at whatever you were doing. Then it shuts itself off.

Since I'm fond of gadgets -- especially ones promising safe, effective new treatment of otherwise intractable conditions -- I asked to borrow a Cranial Stimulator from my friend Chip Fisher, the president of the company (full disclosure: I have no financial interest in Fisher Wallace Inc., although Chip has been known to buy me a drink even when I don't want one).
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Clinical evidence demonstrates the Stimulator to be effective in the treatment of a variety of conditions: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), pain, and drug addiction. It also seems to be particularly useful for treating insomnia.

So let the experiments begin, I said. Personally, I enjoyed the pleasant buzz it gave me and felt somewhat more energized and alert after using it. However, since I sleep like a log already, the insomnia experiment would be wasted on me. I just wanted to make sure it didn't have any funny side effects before passing it along, and am pleased to report that after a week of use, I experienced none. The main show was to lend the Stimulator to some family members with chronic insomnia (who all happened to be female).

Anecdotally, they claimed to benefit from the 20-minute daily treatments, though I have no way to verify this (sleep data are notoriously difficult to gather). I did notice something else, however: it took me a good 6 months to get the machine back from them since they had passed it along to several of their insomniac friends. This tipped me off that the gizmo was doing something right, since people wouldn't be passing the machine on if it didn't work.

Since results of insomnia treatment are hard to quantify, researchers use a subjective 10-point scale that asks a patient to rate the quality of her sleep (called the Likert Scale). In a meta-analysis of all studies done on cranial electrical stimulation (CES) up to 2006, patients experienced on average a 62% improvement in their sleep profiles (which included such measures as how fast they fall asleep, the quality of said sleep, how relaxed they feel afterwards).

What's surprising is that this body of research goes back 50 years. That's how long people have known about and benefited from cranial stimulation. The first effective commercial CES machine came out in 1970. It's just that people are just catching the buzz right now.

One enthusiastic advocate is Mike Davis, a decorated Vietnam veteran and national director of a nonprofit organization dedicated to veterans' needs. He has successfully treated his own chronic insomnia using the Stimulator and encourages fellow combat veterans to use it, too. According to Davis, "I was a slave to sleep medications for over twenty years. After just one week of twice daily use of the Fisher Wallace device, I started cutting back on the sleep meds. For nearly two months now, I've been completely off the medications, sleeping longer and waking more rested than ever." Insomnia seems to be particularly prevalent amongst active duty soldiers, too, and the US Special Forces has asked Fisher Wallace to design a special unit just for them.

Another enthusiastic owner is musician Carly Simon. In an interview with the Boston Globe, she spontaneously asked the reporter to try on her Fisher Wallace Stimulator: ""I have this brain machine. Would you like to try it? It's so not scary... Close your eyes. Are you seeing any tiny flashes? I've been doing it for almost two months now, and I haven't had any dreadful falls into depression or mania,'' she says. "I love it.''

As far as the evidence shows, cranial electrical stimulation seems to be pretty effective for treating insomnia, as well as other chronic conditions like depression and drug addiction. Scientists aren't quite sure how it all works, although a new paper from Harvard Medical School from Prof. Felipe Fregni's group discusses some possible mechanisms.

If you're suffering from chronic insomnia, the Fisher Wallace Stimulator seems to be worth a try at the very least. It also shows impressive results in treating depression. Many patients have gotten good results from it, it's drug-free, and it's pretty safe. If you'd like to find out more, the Fisher Wallace website has comprehensive information on the Stimulator, a list of current clinical studies on it and a list of scientific publications about it. Hope you find it useful.

*cited from the monograph "Cranial Electrical Stimulation: Its First Fifty Years, Plus Three" by Ray Smith, Ph.D., the world's leading expert on cranial electrical stimulation (CES) therapy

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