Electric Muscle Stimulation: Safety and Ethical Issues
At times I receive questions from artists, dancers and the like about the application of electricity to the human body. As electric performance art
is developing to become its own independent art form, a word of advice to aspiring artists might do no harm.
To avoid a long discussion on the complexities involved in the relation human body - electricity, which will get proper attention in my upcoming PhD thesis, a do/do not
list is given here to provide absolute minimal safety requirements.
PLEASE TAKE THIS ADVICE TO HEART (..), IT MIGHT SAVE YOUR LIFE. Also be sure to read the notes below; unknown and unsafe conditions could occur.
We're planning to publish more on electric performance art, if you've done something in this field you think is worthwhile, please let us know!
Do / Do Not
- → refrain from experimenting with bare electricity on the body, unless you are a trained (bio-medical) engineer.
- → instead buy an off the shelve TENS device, it's much better and safe.
- → current pathways: different parts of the body have different sensibilities to electrical currents; the heart is the most vulnerable and its normal operation can easily be disturbed by very small electrical currents (µA range). The resulting fibrillation, an erratic condition where the heart can't pump blood through the body anymore, can be restored to normal operation by a high current (Amp range) pulse. When this condition occurs, there's only about 3 to 4 minutes before brain damage starts to occur by lack of oxygen in the blood; this condition therefore needs to be acted upon immediately (defibrillation). Be sure no current is ever flowing through the heart area; e.g. a current flowing from one hand to another. Localise stimulation to the muscle(s) affected by placement of electrodes as close to the site as possible. Avoid long current pathways.
- → too high currents can cause a cramping of the muscle(s), this is unpleasant and indicative of imminent damage to nerve and/or muscles. When adjusting currents, turn it up slowly until the muscle fully contracts and use this setting as a maximum. Higher settings have no real performative benefit and only cause discomfort.
- → avoid abrupt and very strong stimulus of muscles, the movement of the affected body part might cause damage to tendon bone connections. Always be overly alert on unpredictable conditions at the site that can cause currents to switch on by accident.
- → galvanic separation: never connect the stimulus device directly to mains or any other type of electrical apparatus/connection. Doing so can cause unpredictable current flow, possibly making pathways through sensitive areas i.e. by touching a conductive object.
- → always use battery operated equipment, do not connect to mains even not through an adapter.
- → if you need to interface to computers or other equipment, use opto-isolation (MIDI) or wireless (BlueTooth).
- → don't use impuls (not repeat) frequencies lower than ~25Hz, unpredictable conditions might occur.
- → if you're not experimenting on yourself and am working under an organisational umbrella, you might need official ethical approval. Consult your universities requirements on the matter. On request I can send you the ethics documents I had to produce for my PhD research. Universities and art schools should also be aware of their legal responsibilities; health and safety of employees and students.
- → long term negative effects of electrical stimulation at this point are still unknown. I for one haven't experienced serious problems, but it is known electrical currents have an effect on cell growth.
30 Ways to Die of Electrocution at flickr.
1. Even trained electrical engineers like myself discover not known before conditions where the body fails under influence of electrical currents. I have damaged some nerves by simply applying regarded safe currents, but at a very low frequency. Studying the available literature on the subject I couldn't have had a clue on this failure condition. It's unfortunate one can become its own guinea pig. In this case half of my left hand became numb, the day after
the experiment, an indication of a nerve failure. In the weeks that followed muscle mass declined and I had to consult a neurologist at the hospital. Damaged nerves luckily have the ability to regenerate themselves (which can be measured), but regaining my hands full functionality took almost two years
instead of the estimated two months
by the neurologist.
I'm not trying to scare anyone away from this fascinating art practice, but it has it problematics.
2. will add link to my universities ethical issues webpage.
3. During a period when I did many performances, I discovered small outgrowths of 'fleshy thingies' in both my armpits. Consistently removing these didn't make them return. I have no indication this was related to the regular stimulus at the time.
4. As early as 19th Century (Duchenne), it has been reported a sudden (accidental) high current caused a head to turn so abruptly a tendon was heard snapping.