Electrical Stimulation for Recovery and Pain Relief
With the numerous types of recovery tools available, it can get overwhelming to find what will work for you. Athletes learn to use a combination of pain relief methods such as anti-inflammatory medications, ice, foam rollers, and massage. With every injury and incidence of muscle soreness, you can learn more about your own body and what it takes to get relief. When injured, your doctor may have prescribed physical therapy treatment, which probably included several different approaches to relieve pain and heal the area. Physical therapists may include exercise, manual therapy such as massage and joint mobilizations, ultrasound, and ice or heat modalities. A common tool used during treatment is electrical stimulation. This probably sounds like it can zap you right back to your pre-injury level, but is smart to understand what it truly does for your pain.
What is Electrical Stimulation?
This modality consists of electrical signals that are transmitted to an area of pain or weakness to elicit a response. There are several settings for different types of injuries and symptoms. Electrical stimulation can be used for chronic or acute pain such as low back pain, inflammatory conditions such as tendinitis and bursitis, areas of weakness or atrophy, and wound care. This modality is used by physical therapists as a form of temporary relief of symptoms for patients. There are also portable units available as well for individuals use at home, which may be referred to as TENs units.
The device comes with pads of many different sizes that are connected through leads to the device. The pads contain an adhesive that sticks to the site. Smaller pads are for use on areas such as the ankle, wrist, and shoulder, while the larger pads are used for areas such as the thigh and lower back. The set-up is straightforward usually consisting of choosing your setting, either pulsed or continuous current, and intensity, which you can increase or decrease throughout the treatment. You will feel a slight buzzing, which should be at an intensity that is strong but comfortable. A pulsed current works well for addressing a weakness, and a continuous setting is good for pain. Treatment time varies but can be as little as ten minutes.
Muscle Weakness and Atrophy
Unfortunately, after some surgeries, the muscles of the surrounding areas become weak and often times completely atrophied. This is a natural response to injury or surgery as it is the body’s way of telling the affected person to not move the area of trauma. When this happens, electrical stimulation can help stimulate the muscles to begin activating again. The way this works is by applying the pulsed setting in which electrical impulses are sent to the muscles and cause them to contract for a few seconds followed by a relaxation period of a few seconds.
For those who are looking to regain strength after a surgery or injury, they should actively try to contract their muscles with the electrical impulses. In this manner, electrical stimulation has been shown to be effective at strengthening muscles for those who are too weak to exercise at all or who cannot actively hold a contraction. Examples of these cases are cancer patients, spinal cord injuries, and those with chronic diseases that have resulted in extreme deconditioning, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and heart failure.
In order for the body to feel pain, pain receptors must send a message to the brain signaling the site of pain. The way electrical stimulation works is by producing an electrical current through the affected area, which blocks the pain receptor’s activity, therefore no message is sent to the brain at all. The other theory behind electrical stimulation is that helps the body produce more endorphins, which can naturally relieve pain. You can feel this relief within the first few minutes of using electrical stimulation, but the results are short-lived. Some patients feel the relief for between a few minutes to several hours after stopping the treatment.
If you are considering using electrical stimulation for pain relief, it is important to note that is not a treatment that will eliminate your pain altogether. It will not cure your injury, but it can definitely be a good alternative treatment. Most people rely on daily pain medication, and sometimes multiple times per day. Using electrical stimulation is a good way to avoid the side effects of pills. There are some precautions to take when considering this form of treatment.
- Avoid use on open wounds and skin irritation, as this can make the problem worse, increase pain from the adhesive of the electrode pads, and increase the risk of infection.
- Do not use over the heart or cardiac pacemaker.
- Do not use over a pregnant uterus.
- Do not use over areas of decreased sensation, as it can be difficult to note the amount of intensity and can cause injury.
Although it is not a guaranteed treatment for all conditions, it is known to be a good alternative to other treatment options for chronic pain, arthritis, and other muscular issues. As with any new treatment approach, it is beneficial to consult your doctor before use.