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Types of Electrical Therapy

Electrical therapy is a complementary pain management treatment employing mild electrical currents to stimulate problematic nerves and muscles. Different types of electrical therapy exist to treat pain and other conditions. Electrodes may be attached to the skin or implanted in the tissue or organs. Electrical current, which is used as a part of the therapy, hardly ever causes any discomfort. The most common types of electrotherapy include:

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is the most common type of electrical therapy using a small, battery-operated device which sends low-voltage electrical current through the skin. Electrodes are placed in the area where pain is being experienced. The electrical current stimulates the nerves in the affected area and sends signals to the brain that distort normal pain signals. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation can also be performed at home by patients themselves.

Percutaneous neuromodulation therapy (PNT) is just another name for percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS). This therapy is similar to TENS described above except that needles are inserted near the source of the pain before stimulation occurs. Percutaneous neuromodulation therapy can be used in patients who have difficulty getting adequate electrical stimulation with TENS because of scar tissue, obesity or other issues.

Electroacupuncture is sometimes described as a variation of PNT mentioned above though many experts say it is an entirely separate therapy. It incorporates techniques of acupuncture but needles are attached to a device that generates electrical pulses. Electroacupuncture is used to treat a variety of chronic pain conditions, including heartburn. Auriculotherapy is a variation of electroacupuncture in which the ear, as a microsystem which reflects the entire body, is stimulated with electrical currents.

Iontophoresis employs electrical current to introduce medication through the skin. Iontophoresis is sometimes used to treat conditions such as back and neck pain, arthritic pain, rotator cuff injuries, tendinitis, bursitis and other joint pain.

Phonophoresis is a technique similar to iontophoresis described above which uses ultrasound instead of electricity to deliver medication through the skin.

Microcurrent electrical therapy (MET) places electrodes on opposite sides of the body so that the extremely small electrical current flows through the injured or diseased part of the body and promotes healing and recovery.

Spinal cord stimulation (SCS). A small wire is surgically implanted under the skin to send low-level electrical signals to the spinal cord in order to block pain from being perceived in the brain. This method is sometimes used to treat chronic back pain.

Occipital neurostimulation (ONS). Electrodes are inserted beneath the skin at the base of the skull to treat severe head pain, including neuralgia and migraine.

Galvanic stimulation (GS). Unlike other types of electrotherapy that use alternating current, galvanic stimulation uses direct current, which changes blood flow and speeds healing and recovery. This therapy is used in the treatment of acute injuries.

Intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET). An electrically heated wire is placed into an injured intervertebral disc to seal and toughen the tissue. It is mostly used for lower back pain.

Shortwave diathermy employs a high-frequency electrical current, which raises the temperature in body tissues, thus increasing elasticity in connective tissue (especially skin), ligaments, muscles and joint capsules. Shortwave diathermy is used to treat arthritis, sinusitis, bursitis, tendinitis, contusions, ruptures and fractures.

Russian stimulation is a type of electrical muscle stimulation which provides deep penetration and intense contraction. It is mostly used to treat spinal cord injuries, chronic muscular pain conditions and scoliosis.

Cranial electrotherapy stimulation (CES). Electrodes are clipped to the upper portion of the earlobe or placed behind the ear. Cranial electrotherapy stimulation works by increasing the production of endorphins which reduce pain and affect mood. CES is used in to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia and drug addiction.

Functional electrical stimulation (FES) is also known as peripheral nerve stimulation (PNS). Electrodes are placed on muscles and contracted in a controlled manner to produce movement in paralyzed muscles. Functional electrical stimulation is used in the treatment of spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, stroke and cerebral palsy.

Interferential electrical stimulation (IFC) requires using a greater number of electrodes and takes longer to work than other types of electrotherapy. Interferential electrical stimulation can be used on deep tissues that do not respond to other forms of electrical therapy.

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) involves the use of a device that sends electrical impulses via electrodes to activate underused muscles. It can be used for testing and training in exercise and sports and as a rehabilitation and preventive tool for immobilized patients.

Transcutaneous electrical joint stimulation (TEJS). A patient wears electrodes that deliver electricity for hours a day in an effort to relieve knee osteoarthritis.

Gastric pacemakers. A pacemaker-like device is surgically implanted in the stomach to make extremely overweight people feel full and eat less. Obesity contributes to many pain conditions including abdominal pain, back pain, chest pain and osteoarthritis.

Deep brain stimulation (DBS). An electrode implanted into the brain stimulates a region called the thalamus. Deep brain stimulation is a surgical procedure used to treat disabling movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, dystonia and essential tremor.

Vagus nerve stimulation (VNS). In this therapy a surgically implanted device delivers electrical impulses to the brain to stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve stimulation can be used to treat epilepsy.

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