Publication date: November 2005
This review considers electrical sensitivity (ES) in terms of the subjective attribution of symptoms to electric and magnetic fields and radiations (EMFs), at levels below those shown to cause adverse health effects. The use of the term ES in this review does not imply the acceptance of a causal relationship between symptoms and attributed exposure, however.
The starting point for this review is recognition, by the Radiation Protection Division of the Health Protection Agency (HPA RPD), of the need to consider ES in terms other than its aetiology, as this position alone is failing to meet the needs of those who consider themselves affected by ES.
The review was commissioned to identify and appraise the literature in order to describe and define ES, review the information on its course, prognosis and treatments, and examine its overlap with other conditions such as multiple chemical sensitivity. Specifically excluded from the review were attributed health effects in terms of specific disease processes, and examination of the ongoing debate around the aetiology of ES.
Electrical sensitivity symptoms can be broadly grouped into facial skin symptoms attributed to exposure to visual display units (VDUs) and more general, non-specific symptoms across a range of body systems. Neurological symptoms such as headache and fatigue predominate in this latter group. There may be progression from skin-only symptoms to more generalised symptoms, although this may be relevant only to Sweden.
Facial skin symptoms and their attribution to VDUs are largely a phenomenon of the Nordic countries, and Sweden in particular. In other countries, ES sufferers tend to describe general symptoms attributable to a wide range of EMF sources. With the exception of facial skin symptoms and VDUs, there is no consistent symptom type and attributed source association. Some subjects are only symptomatic to specific sources; others claim sensitivity to a range of sources.
There is no typical time period from exposure to onset of symptoms.
Electrical sensitivity can have severe consequences for the social functioning of those affected. Experience from Sweden is that subjects with general symptoms have a worse prognosis than those with skin-only symptoms.
There is no consistent scientific evidence of sensitive or specific pathophysiological markers.
There is geographical variation in terms of symptomatology, the attributed source of exposure and the estimated prevalence of ES.
There is only limited evidence to guide the management of affected individuals. The majority of conventional medical effort to date has been directed at psychological therapy, such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Evaluation of this approach has been limited to date, but shows some potential for success.
There is considerable overlap between ES and other conditions known as symptom-based conditions, functional somatic syndromes or idiopathic environmental intolerances.
From what little description of the UK experience exists in the published literature and from some case reports on support group websites, the general symptom group appears to predominate in the UK. However, no useful estimate of prevalence in the UK was found.
Recommendations for future research include carrying out studies to describe and understand ES and estimate its prevalence within the UK; engaging with therapists currently treating sufferers in order to source evaluations not identified by this review, and to identify treatment areas where such evaluation might be feasible; and conducting robust trials of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Last reviewed: 29 July 2009