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Electrical Therapy for Pain Relief

Electrical therapy, also known as electrical nerve stimulation or electrotherapy, is a pain management technique that uses small electrical currents to stimulate muscles and nerves. The electrical current may be administered through electrodes, needles or felt pads, which are placed or implanted in the body part to be stimulated. The mild electrical current used during electrotherapy is similar to the electrical impulses that the brain sends to the muscles to cause movement.

It is not yet exactly understood how electrotherapy alleviates pain. It is thought that electrical stimulation either blocks the transmission of pain signals along nerves or it promotes the release of endorphins. Endorphins are hormones in the brain that reduce pain sensation and affect emotions.

Electrical therapy can be offered as a part of physical, manipulation or occupational therapy. Many patients, healthcare practitioners and researchers have found it to be useful in relieving certain types of pain, but, as with any form of pain relief, it does not help everyone. Electrotherapy may also be combined with biofeedback or medications.

There are many different types of electrical therapy available today that can be used to treat a variety of different conditions. For more information see “types of electrical therapy”.


Electrotherapy can be administered in different ways which is dependent upon the type of treatment technique used. Electrodes, rubber suction cups or wires are placed over the skin of the body part that is going to be stimulated. For some techniques, however, devices may need to be surgically implanted. The electrodes are hooked up to a computer, which delivers an appropriate amount of electric current and measures the patient’s response to the treatment. The electrical current moves through the skin and other tissues to the nerves and muscles to be stimulated.

Patient should not experience any pain or discomfort during electrical therapy. Only a mild, vibrating or tingling sensation can be felt when electricity is applied. In the most cases, patients will require several treatment sessions over a certain period of time. With many treatment techniques, patients should experience pain relief shortly after receiving treatment and with some techniques, the pain relief will be cumulative. There are also techniques, such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which can be administered at home so that the patient, who received training, can alleviate their pain whenever necessary.

Conditions Treated by Electrotherapy

Electrical therapy is used to treat a number of acute and chronic pain conditions, including:

  • Back pain due to conditions such as back sprain or strain, scoliosis, sciatica and degenerative disc disease are sometimes treated with electrical therapy, especially with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.
  • Joint pain due to a recent injury or acute condition as well as chronic joint pain such as the pain resulting from arthritis, bursitis, tendinitis or TMJ disorder.
  • Neck pain, neck strain or a pinched nerve in the neck
  • Nerve pain due to conditions such as cranial neuralgia, complex regional pain syndrome, postherpetic neuralgia, peripheral neuropathy or phantom limb pain.
  • Headaches from migraines
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Pelvic pain resulting from prostatitis, interstitial cystitis and menstrual pain.
  • Chest pain due to heartburn or costochondritis
  • Cancer pain – transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation may help cancer patients with mild to moderate pain.
  • Post-surgical pain can be relieved using a patient-controlled device that delivers an opioid by iontophoresis to alleviate post-operative pain.

Benefits and Potential Side Effects of Electrical Therapy

Electrical therapy provides effective pain relief, it is easy to administer and some types may even be used by patients at home. It eliminates or reduces the need for pain medications while increasing the patient’s range of motion, mobility and function and some types of electrotherapy even produce cumulative (improving) effects over successive sessions.

However, there are also some potential side effects associated with electrotherapy which include skin irritation and redness under the electrodes, chemical burns or cardiac fibrillation caused by electrical current and muscle soreness or spasm due to excessive stimulation. Some devices may affect blood pressure and thus cause nausea, headaches or vertigo as well as vasodilation, which in turn can worsen conditions such as hemophilia or blood clotting. Patients may over time develop tolerance to the treatment, meaning more treatment is needed to produce the same level of pain relief. Electrical therapy may be harmful to pregnant women, patients with implanted devices and patients with haemophilia, thrombosis, certain heart conditions and seizure disorders.