Stimulating the ear can improve heart health, states a new study.

According to researchers at the University of Leeds, applying small electrical pulses to the tragus - the small raised flap at the front of the ear - can improve heart function. For the study, the researchers used a standard TENS machine, which is designed to relieve labor pains.

The researchers said that electrical pulses alter the nerve signals reaching the heart and prevent it from beating too hard.

The study included 34 participants. Each volunteer got a 15-minute electrical stimulation session.

"You feel a bit of a tickling sensation in your ear when the TENS machine is on, but it is painless. It is early days-so far we have been testing this on healthy subjects-but we think it does have potential to improve the health of the heart and might even become part of the treatment for heart failure," said Jim Deuchars, Professor of Systems Neuroscience in the University of Leeds' Faculty of Biological Sciences, according to a news release.

In the study, the researchers monitored heart activity of patients during and after the electrical stimulation.

"The first positive effect we observed was increased variability in subjects' heartbeats. A healthy heart does not beat like a metronome. It is continually interacting with its environment-getting a little bit faster or a bit slower depending on the demands on it. An unhealthy heart is more like a machine constantly banging out the same beat. We found that when you stimulate this nerve you get about a 20% increase in heart rate variability," said Dr Jennifer Clancy, of the University of Leeds' School of Biomedical Sciences.

The researchers said that the technique works by stimulating a major nerve in the body called the vagus, which regulates activity of major organs such as the heart. The ear has a sensory branch of the vagus. The team was able to modify nerve signals in the vagus by applying electrical pulses to the ear lobe.

The study is published in the journal Brain Stimulation.