Symptoms and Complaints
Most of us are exposed daily to low levels of electromagnetic fields through computers, mobile phones, radio and television broadcasting, power lines, and virtually anything that uses electricity. A few individuals in the general population complain of electromagnetic hypersensitivity, which is both highly controversial and little understood.
The condition is characterized by a variety of complaints, including sleep disturbance, tiredness, depression, headaches, restlessness, irritability, concentration problems, forgetfulness, learning difficulties, frequent infections, blood pressure changes, limb and joint pains, numbness or tingling sensations, tinnitus, hearing loss, impaired balance, giddiness, and eye problems. There have been reports of cardiovascular problems such as tachycardia, although these are relatively rare.1
In "A Primer on Electromagnetic Sensitivity,"2 Ottawa resident Pamela Schreiner describes herself as "electrically sensitive." She reports "brain fog" and headaches brought on by sitting in front of a computer screen, and she indicates her electrical sensitivity (ES) was triggered by employment in Vienna, Austria, where she worked for several years surrounded by computer displays in an office close to an electric railway.
She felt "very uncomfortable" sitting at her desk and, at that time, lost half her hair. Pamela also reports being chemically sensitive, noting reactions to perfume and outgassing offices. "Regular doctors have no idea what to do about ES," claims Pamela, who found the help of an environmental medicine specialist.
Based on her experiences, she believes, "There is a lot more hope in getting help from complementary medicine with the new ailments we now have in this modern world." She had made improvement in her condition after a variety of treatments, including removal of amalgam dental fillings.
EMS Awareness Month
Awareness of this condition is on the rise. Last year, Florida governor Charles Crist proclaimed May, the same month as Better Hearing and Speech Month, as Electromagnetic Sensitivity (EMS) Awareness month. According to the American Chronicle, "Electromagnetic sensitivity is a painful chronic illness of hypersensitive reactions to electromagnetic radiations for which there is no cure."3
EMF and Tinnitus
Recently, German scientists studied the relationship between electromagnetic fields (EMF) and tinnitus in a 2009 study published in PLoS One.4 Tinnitus occurrence and tinnitus severity were assessed by questionnaires in 89 electromagnetic hypersensitive and 107 controls matched for age, gender, living surroundings, and workplace. Tinnitus was significantly more frequent in the electromagnetic hypersensitive group (50.72 percent vs. 17.5 percent), whereas tinnitus duration and severity did not differ between groups. However, measures of individual EMF-exposure, such as cell phone use, did not show any association with tinnitus.
The researchers concluded, "Tinnitus is associated with subjective electromagnetic hypersensitivity. An individual vulnerability probably due to an over-activated cortical distress network seems to be responsible for both. Hence, therapeutic efforts should focus on treatment strategies (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy) aiming at normalizing this dysfunctional distress network."
WHO Statement regarding EHS
Others are not so sure of the cause of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS), as can be read in the statement from the World Health Organization (WHO): "EHS is characterized by a variety of non-specific symptoms that differ from individual to individual. The symptoms are certainly real and can vary widely in their severity. Whatever its causes, EHS can be a disabling problem for the affected individual. EHS has no clear diagnostic criteria, and there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single medical problem."5
Systematic Review Finds "No Evidence"
EHS has been studied for more than 30 years, with an average of four articles per year appearing in the medical literature. Some of these studies have found evidence of hypersensitivity; others have not. In 2005, a systematic review of 31 experiments testing 725 "electromagnetically hypersensitive" participants was reported in Psychosomatic Medicine by researchers at King's College, London.6 Twenty-four of these studies found "no evidence" to support the existence of a biophysical hypersensitivity. The remaining seven reported "some supporting evidence;" however, all seven were reported as flawed to some extent.
The researchers concluded, "Our mataanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF [electromagnetic fields] in 'hypersensitive' participants."
EHS: A Fad Illness?
For the more skeptical, Brian Dunning writes in his Skeptoid column: "Today we're going to put on a suit made of metal screening to shield us from electromagnetic radiation, and walk around looking like Robbie the Robot, for today's topic is one of the latest fad illnesses caused by the evils of our modern technological society: Electromagnetic hypersensitivity."7
After making the case that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is more likely an imaginary condition than a real one, Dunning closes with the following quote from a reader: "We had an interesting incident near Humboldt State University. A new cell tower went up, and the local newspaper asked a number of people what they thought of it. Some said they noticed their cell phone reception was better. Some said they noticed the tower was affecting their health. To paraphrase the bottom line: 'think about how much more pronounced these effects will be once the tower is actually operational.'"
Treatment Plan for EHS
For others not so skeptical, WHO has the following treatment plan for those complaining of EHS:5
- A medical evaluation to identify and treat any specific conditions that may be responsible for the symptoms;
- A psychological evaluation to identify alternative psychiatric/psychological conditions that may be responsible for the symptoms; and
- An assessment of the workplace and home for factors that might contribute to the presented symptoms. These could include indoor air pollution, excessive noise, poor lighting (flickering light), or ergonomic factors. A reduction of stress and others improvements in the work situation might be appropriate.
For audiologists, research is needed to determine which of the many approaches to tinnitus treatment, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, is most effective for patients who believe that electromagnetic hypersensitivity is the cause of their tinnitus.
1. Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity (EHS). Powerwatch. Accessed online at www.powerwatch.org.uk/health/sensitivity/asp
2. Milburn MP. (l997). A primer on electromagnetic sensitivity. Accessed online at www.environmentalhealth.ca/w97/primer.html
3. Tourtet C. (April 28, 2009). Florida governor proclaims May 2009 as Electromagnetic Sensitivity (EMS) Awareness Month. American Chronicle. Accessed online a www.americanchronicle.com/articles/view/100437
4. Landgrebe M, Frick U, Hauser S, et al. (2009). Association of tinnitus and electromagnetic hypersensitivity: hints for a shared pathophysiology? PLoS ONE. 4(3): e5026.
5. Electromagnetic fields and public health. (December 2005). World Health Organization. Accessed online at www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs296/en/
6. Rubin GJ, Das Munshi J, Wessely S. (2005). Electromagneteic hypersensitivity: a systematic review of provocation studies. Psychosomatic Medicine, 67(2): 224-32.
7. Dunning B. (October 10, 2007). Electromagnetic hypersensitivity: real or imagined? Skeptoid. Accessed online at http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4072
Jess Dancer is professor emeritus of audiology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Contact him at email@example.com regarding your personal or professional experiences with electromagnetic hypersensitivity.