For decades, a small but vocal subset of people have attributed their pain, dizziness, and fatigue to power lines, cell towers, and cordless phones. Some of these people resort to extreme measures to isolate themselves from electromagnetic fields (EMF), relocating to remote areas or even caves in an attempt to protect themselves. It’s reasonable to think that EMF might have some effect on our bodies; after all, electricity is one of the things that keeps our bodies running. But with no hard evidence to back them up, these complaints have generally been written off as psychosomatic. Now, scientists say they’ve found evidence that EMF can indeed cause pain in some people. The findings were published last month in the journal PLOS One.
Retired Major David Underwood lost his left arm in the Iraq War. Underwood and a number of other amputees have no doubt that EMF trigger their nerve pain. “When roaming on a cellphone in the car kicked in, the pain almost felt like having my arm blown off again," he said in a press release. “I didn’t notice the power lines, cell phones on roam or other electromagnetic fields until I first felt them in my arm.”
Underwood mentioned this phenomenon in a conversation with Mario Romero-Ortega, a bioengineer at the University of Texas, Dallas. The scientist was intrigued. He decided to find out if the EMF really could be to blame for Underwood’s excruciating nerve pain. He was especially interested in the role of the neuroma, a type of painful nerve growth common after amputation.
Romero-Ortega and his colleagues began their research with two groups of lab rats. The rats in the control group were otherwise healthy, while rats in the second group had sustained nerve injuries similar to those in amputated limbs.
Once a week for eight weeks, the researchers exposed all the rodents to a rat-sized dose of the EMF, similar to the amount of exposure you’d get just by living your life in a populated area. They found that four weeks in the experiment, 88 percent of the “amputee” rats showed a pain response during EMF exposure. Like human amputees, the rats also developed neuromas as their injuries healed.
The researchers then gave half of those rats surgery to remove their neuromas and tested them all again. Even without the neuromas, the injured rats’ pain 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 in a press release. "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."
The researchers say their study is clear evidence that EMF can cause pain to those with nerve damage. After all, Romero-Ortega noted in the press release, it’s not like the rats could have been faking or imagining it. "In our study, the subjects with nerve injury were not capable of complex psychosomatic behavior. Their pain was a direct response to man-made radio-frequency electromagnetic energy."
And while the study was conducted on rats, the researchers believe their results can “very likely” be generalized for humans.
Romero-Ortega showed retired Major Underwood a tape of the “amputee” rats during EMF exposure. “It was exactly the same type of movements I would have around cell phones 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."