What Is Electrical Stimulation?

Electrical stimulation is a treatment commonly used in physical therapy.  It can be used for many different conditions and for many different goals.  The most common uses for electrical stimulation are: short term pain relief and muscle re-education.  Today we will briefly discuss how Continuum Wellness Physical Therapy uses electrical stimulation and how it helps you quickly recovery from injury and help reduce your pain.

Briefly, we must say that electrical stimulation is not appropriate for everyone.  Your physical therapist will discuss with you if electrical stimulation is appropriate for you.  Typically, it is not appropriate for people with the following conditions: pacemaker, pregnancy, cancer, open wounds or sores, decreased or abnormal skin sensation.



Muscle Re-education

It is well documented that muscles will atrophy (shrink in size) following immobilization.[1] [2]  This usually occurs after surgery or after a bone is broken and you have to be put in a cast or immobilized. [3] One goal of physical therapy is to maintain muscle size and strength as much as possible when immobilization is necessary.  Because movement and strength training is often not allowed for many weeks following surgery or immobilization, one treatment we use is electrical stimulation.

Traditionally this is called “Russian” electrical stimulation because it was first researched and utilized by the Russian performance researcher, Kots.[4]  In this treatment we place between 2 and 4 pads on the muscle or muscles we want to activate.  You will feel a tingling sensation in that muscle and a slight contraction.  This should not be painful at all.  When you feel the tingling and contraction you then try to voluntarily contract the muscle at the same time.  Usually you will hold the contraction for 5-10 seconds and rest while the stimulation turns off for 5-10 seconds.  This is typically performed for around 10 minutes.

In normal circumstances we continue to use Russian electrical stimulation until you are able to make a strong muscle contraction on your own.


Pain Relief

Transcutaneous Electrical Neuromuscular Stimulation (TENS) can also be used for pain relief.  There are mixed data on whether long term pain reduces with use of TENS.[5] [6]  There have been some studies that show use of TENS can help reduce acute pain, such as after surgery. [7] [8] [9]

TENS should be very a very comfortable buzzing and tingling sensation.  Most people really enjoy the treatment, which usually lasts for about 10 minutes.  Clinically, we have found that many patients have an immediate reduction in pain after treatment and also a reduction in muscle spasm.

There are different theories on why TENS works to reduce pain.[10]  We typically use settings that follow the “Gate Control Theory”, which states that sensation nerves conduct faster than pain nerves, so providing a constant sensory input with the buzzing and tingling of the TENS excites the sensory nerves and overrides the pain nerves’ signals to the brain.

At Continuum Wellness Physical Therapy we use many different treatments to help you recover from injury and help reduce pain.  If you have been dealing with pain for a long time or have a recent injury or surgery that is causing you pain, please call to schedule a free, no obligation screening.  We will discuss your condition and tell you if physical therapy is right for you.


Call now:

Gilbert: 480-503-2010

Chandler: 480-207-1077

Apache Junction: 480-983-0877


[1] Appell, Hans-Joachim. “Muscular atrophy following immobilisation.” Sports Medicine 10.1 (1990): 42-58.

[2] Lake, David A. “Neuromuscular electrical stimulation.” Sports medicine 13.5 (1992): 320-336.

[3] Gibson, JNA, K Smith, and MJ Rennie. “Prevention of disuse muscle atrophy by means of electrical stimulation: maintenance of protein synthesis.” The Lancet 332.8614 (1988): 767-770.

[4] Ward, Alex R, and Nataliya Shkuratova. “Russian electrical stimulation: the early experiments.” Physical therapy 82.10 (2002): 1019-1030.

[5] Sluka, Kathleen A, and Deirdre Walsh. “Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation: basic science mechanisms and clinical effectiveness.” The Journal of Pain 4.3 (2003): 109-121.

[6] Johnson, Mark I. “Does transcutaneouselectrical nerve stimulation (TENS) work?.” Clinical effectiveness in nursing 2.3 (1998): 111-120.

[7] VanderArk, Gary D, and Kathleen A McGrath. “Transcutaneous electrical stimulation in treatment of postoperative pain.” The American Journal of Surgery 130.3 (1975): 338-340.

[8] Hansson, Per, and Anders Ekblom. “Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) as compared to placebo TENS for the relief of acute oro-facial pain.” Pain 15.1 (1983): 157-165.

[9] Arvidsson, Inga, and Ejnar Eriksson. “Postoperative TENS pain relief after knee surgery: objective evaluation.” Orthopedics 9.10 (1986): 1346-1351.

[10] “Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation: Overview …” 2008. 16 Mar. 2016 <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/325107-overview>

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