Why you should care
A growing number of companies want to solve sleep problems once and for all with electrostimulation devices.
You stare at the ceiling, counting the same small cracks over and over. After tossing and turning, you try rolling onto your back, spreading your legs in a starfish pose, throwing the blankets off and pulling the blankets back on. You flip your pillow, hoping that somehow the coolness of the other side will magically fill you with drowsiness. But nothing happens, and you lie awake for hours.
Insomniacs have tried meditation apps, hypnosis and sleeping pills, but a new method of sleep therapy is on the rise. You probably haven’t tried it, and you may have not even heard of it. For decades, medical practitioners have prescribed electrostimulation devices, referred to as “electroceuticals” in the industry (as opposed to pharmaceuticals) for pain management. Now, an increasing number of companies are developing devices using that technology to cure insomnia, offering an approach that allows users to avoid or minimize sleeping pills.
Thus far, there is limited acceptance of this new form of sleep therapy by the mainstream medical community. That’s partly because there has been very little peer-reviewed research yet that confirms the benefits of any type of electrostimulation specifically for sleep quality — though there is enough research that shows this technology works for pain relief. But there is strong empirical evidence linking chronic pain to poor sleep. Experts say the medical community is also notoriously slow to accept out-of-the-box fixes. And most of the new devices that are emerging — all in the past decade — have been approved by the FDA for use.
Oska Wellness, founded in 2015, and SomniResonance, founded in 2010, both manufacture devices that send pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) signals to your body at precise frequencies. The devices can help speed your recovery at a cellular level, relieving pain and allowing you to sleep better. Founded in 2009, PowerDot uses transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) to deliver electrical impulses through small sticky patches on the skin. The signals flood the nervous system, reducing the ability to transmit pain signals to the spinal cord and brain.
The market for such devices is clear. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 21 percent of Americans experience chronic pain. Only 37 percent of people with chronic pain report getting good quality sleep. And in all, one in four Americans experience insomnia each year, according to June 2018 research by the University of Pennsylvania. Yet, despite the continuing opioid epidemic, there are still 214 million opioid prescriptions written every year. These electrostimulation device makers are out to change that — helping users not only relieve pain but get better quality sleep in the process, without the side effects of controversial medication.
“We overmedicate people, and there’s growing concern around that,” says Dr. Kenneth McLeod, professor of systems science and industrial engineering at Binghamton University in New York.
The concept of electrostimulation is hardly new. In the 18th century, Christian Kratzenstein and Benjamin Franklin both experimented with applying static electrical currents to the skin for therapeutic purposes, but in the early 20th century, electrotherapy was mostly abandoned in favor of using painkillers like ibuprofen and opioids. Then in 1965, Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall published research on their gate control theory of pain, showing that non-painful sensation elsewhere in the body can prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. This spurred a renewed interest in using TENS for pain relief as the basic premise on which the technology operates is the same.
But it’s only now that researchers and companies are beginning to look at these technologies as possible solutions that can help people sleep better. Greg Houlgate, co-founder and chief product and business development officer at Oska Wellness, started out by wanting simply to democratize the use of PEMF and TENS for pain relief — treatment that otherwise needed a visit to the doctor’s office. But, while Oska’s device is registered with the FDA as a Class I Medical Device intended to decrease inflammation and reduce pain, Houlgate says at least a third of their customers have reported better sleep since using the device. “People that use our device claim better sleep,” Houlgate says. And interest is growing. While Houlgate declined to reveal exact numbers, he says Oska is four times larger than they were a year and a half ago in revenue, profit and distribution.
SomniResonance produces the SR1 PEMF device aimed specifically at treating sleep disorders. The device is placed onto your chest over your brachial plexus, just below the middle of your collarbone. Turn it on at bedtime and it will send electric pulses to your nervous system for 22 minutes and then shut off automatically. SR1 emits an electromagnetic frequency designed to shift the brain into sleep mode, says Fraser Lawrie, inventor of the SR1 and CEO of SomniResonance’s parent company, Delta Sleeper. The SR1 has been cleared by the FDA as a device intended to promote a healthy lifestyle, which allows SomniResonance to make claims regarding sleep disorders. The company has sold thousands of the SR1 since it was released in 2015, says Lawrie, who is confident the market will only grow. The global neurostimulation market, he says, was $3.65 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $6.2 billion by 2020.
Unlike Oska and SomniResonance, the cervicothoracic vagus electromagnetic stimulation (cVES) device from AMO Lab in South Korea (launched in 2016) is a pre-bedtime routine. AMO+ is worn as a necklace for 30 minutes, two hours before bed, and uses low-frequency electromagnetic field signals to balance your autonomic nervous system — the thing that makes it possible to breathe or allows your heart to beat unconsciously. The goal is to help your body lower stress so it’s easier to fall asleep without needing pharmaceuticals. “So many people take sleeping pills, but they have side effects,” says Min Kyu Kim, CEO of AMO Lab. While AMO+ is not yet available to the public — it will hit the market in June this year — Kim says most users from their field tests in South Korea have reported improved sleep.
One reason why electrostimulation as a legitimate therapy for pain relief and sleep improvement is yet to enter the mainstream in the U.S. is because of how doctors are taught in medical school, says McLeod, who has studied electrostimulation for nearly 30 years. “[As a doctor] you’re only allowed to teach what’s in the [medical] board exams and you’re taught there’s either a drug or a surgery,” he says.
To be sure, the absence of peer-reviewed research backing the claims that these devices can help people sleep better means that for the moment, the only evidence is empirical — and much of that is provided by the firms themselves. But studies confirm that PEMF and TENS are effective at managing pain in patients with multiple sclerosis, fibromyalgia and chronic back pain, though not necessarily more than pharmaceuticals. The reports of improved sleep after using these devices are likely the result of experiencing pain relief, says McLeod.
For those who suffer from insomnia thanks to persistent pain, that might be enough. And even if the traditional medical community isn’t quick to embrace these devices, McLeod thinks we’ll soon have the younger generation to thank for bringing them into the mainstream. “Millennials are much more open to alternative medicine,” McLeod says.
And unless the medical community can figure out other solutions that don’t involve gulping down pills, the rest of America might well follow their lead.