Study uncovers how electromagnetic fields can amplify pain

February 3, 2016
Dr. Mario Romero-Ortega

For years, retired Maj. David Underwood has noticed that whenever he drove under power lines and around other electromagnetic fields, he would feel a buzz in what remained of his arm. When traveling by car through Texas' open spaces, the buzz often became more powerful.

"When roaming on a cellphone in the car kicked in, the pain almost felt like having my arm blown off again," said Underwood, an Iraq War veteran who was injured by an improvised explosive device (IED). His injuries have resulted in 35 surgeries and the amputation of his left arm. Shrapnel from the IED also tore part of his leg and left him with more than 100 smaller wounds. "I didn't notice the , cellphones on roam or other until I first felt them in my arm."

Until a recent study led by researchers at The University of Texas at Dallas was published online last month in PLOS ONE, there was no scientific evidence to back up the anecdotal stories of people, such as Underwood, who reported aberrant sensations and around cellphone towers and other technology that produce radio-frequency electromagnetic fields.

"Our study provides evidence, for the first time, that subjects exposed to cellphone towers at low, regular levels can actually perceive pain," said Dr. Mario Romero-Ortega, senior author of the study and an associate professor of bioengineering in the University's Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. "Our study also points to a specific nerve pathway that may contribute to our main finding."

Most of the research into the possible effects of cellphone towers on humans has been conducted on individuals with no diagnosed, pre-existing conditions. This is one of the first studies to look at the effects of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) in a nerve-injury model, said Romero-Ortega, who researches nerve regeneration and builds neural interfaces—technology that connects bionic or robotic devices to the peripheral nerve. There are nearly 2 million amputees in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and many suffer from chronic pain.

After interacting with Underwood, Romero-Ortega decided to study the phenomena that Underwood described.

The team hypothesized that the formation of neuromas—inflamed bundles that often form due to injury—created an environment that may be sensitive to EMF-tissue interactions. To test this, the team randomly assigned 20 rats into two groups—one receiving a nerve injury that simulated amputation, and the other group receiving a sham treatment. Researchers then exposed the subjects to a radiofrequency electromagnetic antenna for 10 minutes, once per week for eight weeks. The antenna delivered a power density equal to that measured at 39 meters from a local cellphone tower—a power density that a person might encounter outside of occupational settings.

Researchers found that by the fourth week, 88 percent of subjects in the nerve-injured group demonstrated a behavioral pain response, while only one subject in the sham group exhibited pain at a single time point, and that was during the first week. After growth of neuroma and resection—the typical treatment in humans with neuromas who are experiencing pain—the pain responses persisted.

"Many believe that a neuroma has to be present in order to evoke pain. Our model found that electromagnetic fields evoked pain that is perceived before neuroma formation; subjects felt pain almost immediately," Romero-Ortega said. "My hope is that this study will highlight the importance of developing clinical options to prevent neuromas, instead of the current partially effective surgery alternatives for neuroma resection to treat pain."

Researchers also performed experiments at the cellular level to explain the behavioral response. That led researchers to explore the protein TRPV4, which is known to be a factor in heat sensitivity and the development of allodynia, which some subjects displayed.

"It is highly likely that TRPV4 is a mediator in the pain response for these subjects," Romero-Ortega said. "Our calcium imaging experiments were a good indicator that TRPV4 is worth further exploration."

Romero-Ortega said since the research produced pain responses similar to those in anecdotal reports and a specific human case, the results "are very likely" generalizable to humans.

"There are commercially available products to block radio frequency electromagnetic energy. There are people who live in caves because they report to be hypersensitive to radiomagnetism, yet the rest of the world uses cellphones and does not have a problem. The polarization may allow people to disregard the complaints of the few as psychosomatic," he said. "In our study, the subjects with nerve injury were not capable of complex psychosomatic behavior. Their pain was a direct response to man-made radiofrequency electromagnetic energy."

At one point in the study, members of the research group showed Underwood video of subjects in the experiment and their response to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields.

"It was exactly the same type of movements I would have around cellphones on roam, power lines and other electromagnetic fields," said Underwood, who has served on congressional medical committees and been exposed to some of the best doctors in the world. "It is pretty amazing that a few short conversations with this team led to validation of what I, and many others, experience."

Researchers said that the next step is to develop devices that block neuropathic from radiofrequency electromagnetic energy.

Explore further: Painkillers don't ease disability due to nerve damage: study

More information: Bryan Black et al. Anthropogenic Radio-Frequency Electromagnetic Fields Elicit Neuropathic Pain in an Amputation Model, PLOS ONE (2016). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0144268

Related Stories

Painkillers don't ease disability due to nerve damage: study

February 1, 2016
(HealthDay)—Taking prescription narcotic painkillers doesn't improve movement or reduce disability in people with pain related to nerve damage, researchers have found.

Patients who are not prescribed opioids find more improvements in physical function, study

January 22, 2016
Opioids such as morphine, codeine and Tylenol 3 can be effective for treating pain, however, a new University of Alberta study finds that patients with neuropathic pain taking opioids report no improvements in physical functioning ...

New pain mechanisms revealed for neurotoxin in spinal cord injury

November 24, 2015
A toxin released by the body in response to spinal cord injuries increases pain by causing a proliferation of channels containing pain sensors, new research shows, and this hypersensitivity also extends to peripheral nerves ...

How does exercise affect nerve pain?

June 1, 2012
Exercise helps to alleviate pain related to nerve damage (neuropathic pain) by reducing levels of certain inflammation-promoting factors, suggests an experimental study in the June issue of Anesthesia & Analgesia, official ...

Exercise could help predict susceptibility to chronic pain

October 20, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Scientists know that exercise helps the body tolerate pain. But some feel more benefits than others.

Researchers identify which sensory nerve cells contribute to chronic nerve pain

August 17, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- New research from the University of Bristol has identified the subtypes of sensory nerve cells that are likely to contribute to long-term nerve pain from partial nerve injury. It is hoped this will aid ...

Recommended for you

Thousands of new microbial communities identified in human body

September 20, 2017
A new study of the human microbiome—the trillions of microbial organisms that live on and within our bodies—has analyzed thousands of new measurements of microbial communities from the gut, skin, mouth, and vaginal microbiome, ...

Study finds immune system is critical to regeneration

September 20, 2017
The answer to regenerative medicine's most compelling question—why some organisms can regenerate major body parts such as hearts and limbs while others, such as humans, cannot—may lie with the body's innate immune system, ...

Immune cells produce wound healing factor, could lead to new IBD treatment

September 20, 2017
Specific immune cells have the ability to produce a healing factor that can promote wound repair in the intestine, a finding that could lead to new, potential therapeutic treatments for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), according ...

As men's weight rises, sperm health may fall

September 20, 2017
(HealthDay)—A widening waistline may make for shrinking numbers of sperm, new research suggests.

New model may help science overcome the brain's fortress-like barrier

September 19, 2017
Scientists have helped provide a way to better understand how to enable drugs to enter the brain and how cancer cells make it past the blood brain barrier.

Cell-based therapy success could be boosted by new antioxidant

September 19, 2017
Cell therapies being developed to treat a range of conditions could be improved by a chemical compound that aids their survival, research suggests.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.