Electrotherapy is gaining popularity as a pain relief treatment and could be an excellent option for people who have trouble managing pain and other symptoms. Let’s find out what electrotherapy is, the types of devices used, and how it can be used to relieve pain.
What is electrotherapy?
A person feels pain when the brain receives an electrical signal from damaged nerve or muscle tissue. The electrotherapy treatment consists of sending mild electrical pulses to the problem area in order to block the pain signals, which reduces the sensation of pain.
Electrotherapy began as a treatment for depression but has become increasingly popular as an alternative to opioid medication, which has many risks and side effects. Unlike opioids (also known as narcotics), electrotherapy is not used as the primary relief method, but rather, it is combined with other treatments.
A large number of people find this treatment useful as a pain reliever, but it is not for everybody: some patients have not perceived any difference in their pain level. Medical studies have not been conclusive regarding the treatment’s effectiveness, and research reports have been mixed.
Electrotherapy devices are available for purchase by the general public. Still, it is always recommended that people consult with their doctors and try the treatment in a medical setting before purchasing a unit.
The units are battery-powered devices connected to sticky electrode pads that are placed on the skin. Once the device is turned on, the electrodes deliver a mild electric current to the skin. Newer devices are wireless and can be worn unobtrusively under clothing during daily activities. Devices cost from $30 to hundreds of dollars and have been verified by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as safe to use, but it does not attest to its effectiveness.
What is electrotherapy used for?
The use of electrical pulses to aid healing has a long history, but its uses have grown ever since. Aside from its popularity as a treatment for chronic pain and fatigue, it can also address conditions such as:
- Diabetic nerve pain
- Migraine headaches
- Wound healing
Electrotherapy is an umbrella term for treatments that can take many forms, but the most popular kind is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation or TENS. The name can be scary, but the individual experiences are a tingling, buzzing sensation, which could be uncomfortable but not painful.
Although its primary use is as a pain reliever, electrotherapy can also be helpful in other ways. Mainly, it can also be used to:
- Improve circulation
- Repair tissue
- Strengthen muscles
- Promote bone growth
Electrotherapy side effects
Even though the electrotherapy devices have been declared safe by the Food and Drug Administration, there are some risks and side effects involved, as with almost all medical treatments.
The most common side effect is skin irritation (or rash) from the adhesives holding the electrodes in place against the skin, especially in people with allergies or sensitive skin. Overuse of the devices can also cause a burning sensation on the skin. People should always follow the instructions about the duration of the therapy to prevent this issue.
The types of electrotherapy that puncture the skin might cause bruising, bleeding and infection. The electrodes should never be placed over areas with broken skin or infections.
Most importantly, people with pacemakers, people with heart problems, people with epilepsy and pregnant women are strongly advised against using electrotherapy. Placing the pads over the heart could cause cardiac arrhythmia. Placing the pads over the abdomen of a pregnant woman can cause fetal damage.
It is crucial to never place the electrodes on the neck or over the eyes. Putting electrodes on the neck can cause low blood pressure and cause spasms. Putting electrodes over the eyes can cause an injury due to increased pressure within the eye.
Types of electrotherapy
There are many different types of electrotherapy, but they all have some characteristics in common: they all use batteries to power the transmission of electricity through the electrodes. Still, the therapies vary in frequencies and effects. Despite not working with an electrical current, it is usual for ultrasound and laser therapy also to be grouped within this category.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
TENS usually uses small electrodes connected to a battery-powered device that delivers short electrical pulses. The electrodes are placed over the area in pain and stimulate the sensory nerves to flood the nervous system and reduce their ability to transmit pain signals to the brain.
It is recommended to consult a physical therapist or doctor before purchasing a TENS device, to prevent side effects and to see whether the treatment does indeed provide pain relief. The duration and frequency of the therapy depend on the needs of the patient: it can be done in 30-minutes intervals or continuously; it can even be done overnight in some cases.
TENS may be used to treat the following:
- Neck pain and stiffness
- Low back pain
- Diabetic nerve pain
- Fibromyalgia pain
Percutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (PENS)
Percutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, also called electroacupuncture, is a form of subcutaneous electrotherapy. This means that electrical stimulation is applied through small needles that penetrate the skin. The needles deliver the current closer to the nerves or muscles than TENS therapy.
Some studies show that it helps relieve nerve pain, while other studies show that it does not. If a person consults with their doctor and decides to try PENS therapy, they must take into account that there is a variation in the duration of pain relief from PENS; some individuals might experience long-lasting comfort, while others might require repeated treatments.
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)
The goal of Electrical Muscle Stimulation is to rebuild muscle tissue. Rather than nerves, the target of EMS is weakened muscles. The electric current makes the muscles contract and gradually regain their strength.
EMS can be used for rehabilitation muscles that have been weakened or for conditions such as pulled muscles. Studies have proven that it is a beneficial treatment, but it is not a quick fix in regaining muscle strength.
Less popular kinds of electrotherapy include Interferential Current (IFC), Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF), and Galvanic Stimulation (GS).
As always, please consult your doctor or physical therapist before beginning treatment if you think electrotherapy might be beneficial to your health.