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Electrical Stimulation


Electrical stimulation is a therapeutic procedure that involves sending mild electrical pulses through the skin to help stimulate injured muscles or nerves and accelerate recovery by relieving pain and other symptoms.

How Does Electrical Stimulation Work?

Electrical stimulation uses electrical pulses that mimic signals coming from neurons to target muscles, forcing them to contract. These repeated muscle contractions help to improve blood flow, increase strength, and repair injured muscles.

Electrical stimulation that focuses on pain relief sends signals targeting the nerves, rather than the muscles, to block pain receptors traveling from the nerves to the brain.

Forms of Electrical Stimulation

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is used to provide relief for chronic and acute pain. The physical therapist will place electrodes on the skin near the source of pain and adjust the settings of the device sending the electrical pulses. The signals will then travel through nerve fibers to block or minimize pain signals traveling to the brain.

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) involves forcing the muscles to contract. This form of electrical stimulation can help improve muscle strength if the patient also attempts to contract the muscle simultaneously.

Other forms of electrical stimulation include:

  • Electrical stimulation for tissue repair (ESTR). Helps improve circulation, minimize swelling, and accelerate wound healing.
  • Interferential current (IFC). Stimulates nerves to alleviate pain.
  • Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES). Stimulates nerves to restore muscle function and strength, prevent muscle atrophy, and minimize muscle spasms.
  • Functional electrical stimulation (FES). Involves implanting a unit in the body to deliver long-term muscle stimulation with the goal of preserving function and motor skills.
  • Spinal cord stimulation (SCS). Involves using an implantable device to relieve pain.
  • Iontophoresis. Delivers ionically charged medication to tissue to accelerate healing.

Who Needs Electrical Stimulation?

Patients with the following conditions and symptoms may benefit from electrical stimulation:

  • Cancer-related pain
  • Back pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Dysphagia (difficulty swallowing)
  • Joint pain
  • Arthritis
  • Nerve inflammation

The Risks of Electrical Stimulation

Electrical stimulation may cause mild skin irritation in the treatment area where the electrodes are placed.

A more serious health risk is posed to the heart. Electrical stimulation may interfere with pacemakers and other implantable heart devices. Patients should speak to their doctor to find out if they qualify for electrical stimulation.

What to Expect During Electrical Stimulation

The physical therapist begins by attaching electrodes to small sticky pads, which are placed on the skin. Several electrodes are placed around the treatment area and wires from the electrical stimulation device are attached to the pads.

The settings of the device will be adjusted to ensure the patient is receiving a proper level of electrical stimulation. The pulses will stimulate the body to produce natural pain-relieving chemicals, called endorphins.

Electrical stimulation is typically not a first-line treatment. Instead, it is used in conjunction with other physical therapy treatment options. The results of electrical stimulation treatment will vary depending on the patient’s condition and some patients may require multiple sessions to achieve pain relief.

Electrical stimulation is most effective in treating weakened or atrophied muscles and healing muscles after an injury or surgery.


At OC Physical Therapy, patients receive a customized treatment plan to help them fully recover from injuries and overuse. Our dedicated team of physical therapists seeks to provide you with better overall health through quality care.
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