Modern electro-stimulation therapy (also called electrotherapy) is a type of treatment used by chiropractors and other health care practitioners to relieve chronic and acute pain and to speed the healing of damaged tissues.

While scientists don’t fully understand the mechanism by which electro-stimulation therapy relieves pain, they believe that electrical pulses may block the transmission of pain signals along the nerves as well as stimulate the release of natural pain-killing endorphins. In addition, the electrical pulses fatigue the muscle tissues, causing a release of tension and improved blood flow to the area. This may increase the amount of nutrients brought to the affected area while at the same time helping to clear away accumulated toxins.

The practice of using electricity to control or relieve pain isn’t new. It actually has a very long and colorful history. An abridged timeline might look something like this:

  • 63 AD. Julius Caesar’s court physician, Scribonius Largus, records that patients in ancient Rome are standing on electric eels to relieve pain
  • From the 1700s through the 1900s. Various scientists working to understand the properties and applications of electricity experiment with a variety of medical uses.
  • 1855. French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne publishes his theories on “faradic shock” in “On Localized Electrization and its Application of Pathology and Therapy
  • 1863. G. Gaiffe in Paris, France introduces a low-voltage precursor to the modern transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device.
  • 1919. Charles Willie Kent patents the “Electreat,” the first high-output, battery-operated electrostimulation device.
  • Mid-1960s through Early 1970s. American neurosurgeon and pain medicine pioneer Dr. C. Norman Shealy experiments with electrical implants and collaborates on development of the modern TENS device.
  • 1974. Don Maurer (one of the founders of Medtronic’s neurological division) patents the first modern, patient-wearable TENS unit.
  • 2014. The US Food and Drug Administration approves the marketing of TENS device intended to treat migraine headaches.

Today, TENS is one of the most commonly used forms of electro-stimulation therapy. Others include interferential current (IFC) and galvanic stimulation (GS). Each produces different waveforms, frequencies and effects, though all use the same method of applying adhesive pads to the skin that deliver electrical stimulation to the nerves and muscles. However, it’s important to note that TENS is used for pain therapy while electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is used more broadly for other training, therapeutic and cosmetic purposes. These include:

  • Treating neuromuscular dysfunction by increasing strength, motor control and blood flow and retarding atrophy of muscles
  • Speeding tissue repair by stimulating microcirculation and enhancing the health of connective and dermal tissues
  • Reducing swelling by speeding the rate of fluid absorption and affecting the permeability of blood vessels
  • Reducing the intensity of muscle spasms
  • Increasing muscle strength
  • Improving range of motion in joints due to injury or arthritis

Chiropractic physicians typically prescribe TENS in combination with other therapies such as manipulation, mobilization, massage and cold laser to treat patients with musculoskeletal pain. If Dr. Ratio prescribes a TENS unit, it is important that you understand exactly how to operate it and that you use it only as directed. Contrary to what you might imagine, TENS therapy is not at all painful. However, you should be careful to take certain precautions, including:

  • Don’t apply electrodes to skin that’s irritated, and stop using your TENS unit and call Dr. Ratio if the electrodes themselves cause a rash or burn that lasts more than 6 hours.
  • Don’t use your TENS unit in combination with hot or cold packs, or while driving, sleeping, showering or bathing.

TENS isn’t for everyone and works differently for some patients than for others. If you or someone you care about is experiencing acute or chronic pain and you’re wondering whether TENS might help, we encourage you to call our office and schedule an appointment today. As chiropractic physicians, we’re experts in diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal problems, so we can work closely with you to understand your condition and recommend the best treatment options for you. We’re here to help!