E-stim uses electrical pulses to mimic the action of signals coming from neurons. These mild electrical currents target either muscles or nerves. When used correctly and provided under the guidance of a licensed and skilled therapist, electrical stimulation is a safe and effective method that can be used to treat a variety of conditions.
E-stim therapy for muscle recovery sends signals to targeted muscles to make them contract. By causing repeated muscle contractions, blood flow improves, helping to repair injured muscles.
Those muscles also improve their strength through repeated cycles of contraction and relaxation. E-stim can also “train” muscles to respond to the body’s natural signals to contract. This can be an especially helpful benefit for stroke survivors who must relearn basic motor functions.
While individual units and methods of delivery can vary, a standard electrical stimulation device uses self-adhesive electrodes placed around the target treatment area on the body. These electrodes are connected by wire that leads to a main unit, through which electricity can pass and ultimately interact with sensory and/or motor nerves (depending on the type of current utilized).
What is electrical stimulation used for?
There are several electrical stimulation modes that use different types of currents intended to stimulate different nerves in a variety of specific ways. These include modes such as transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), interferential, pre-modulated, Russian, and symmetrical or asymmetrical bi-phasic. If you are confused as to which one would be best for you, no need to worry. Your physical or occupational therapist will decide and educate you on the right mode to meet your needs.
Electrical stimulation can provide a variety of beneficial healing effects, including:
- Reducing, eliminating, and/or controlling pain (both acute and chronic)
- Increasing local circulation
- Decreasing swelling
- Improving range of motion
- Reducing muscle spasms
- Providing biofeedback (aka improve body awareness)
- Improving motor coordination
- Providing neuromuscular re-education
- Preventing or reversing muscle atrophy
Pain control and reduction is probably the most frequent indication of electrical stimulation usage. Electrical stimulation can be used for a wide variety of conditions as indicated, including acute sports-related or auto accident-related injuries, repetitive stress injuries, muscle strains, ligament sprains, and even neurological conditions including stroke. Though there are some groups that should be excluded from doing electro-stimulation therapy including people with deep vein thrombosis, people who are pregnant, people with pacemakers, and people with impaired cognition) nor safe to use on everybody area, including on the back of the neck, eyes, or over areas with damaged skin or decreased sensation.
Does electrical muscle stimulation hurt?
The intensity of the electrical muscle stimulation or sensory nerve stimulation is easily modifiable and ultimately will only be as much as you, the patient, can tolerate. Typically, electrical stimulation will feel tingly or prickly (some would describe it as a “pins and needles” sensation). Sometimes, as in the case when used for muscle strengthening, the intensity level can be high and somewhat uncomfortable, but it should never cause pain.
What should I expect during an electrical stimulation session?
At your initial consultation, expect to be taken through a thorough patient history questionnaire and physical examination. Your physical and occupational therapist will be able to diagnose your condition and then devise an appropriate treatment plan to meet your unique needs.
If your physical and occupational therapist decides that electrical stimulation is an appropriate part of your plan of care, they will first educate you about the specific modality. You’ll be asked to sit or lie in a comfortable position, your skin in the target treatment area will be cleaned and prepped, and your PT will guide you step-by-step through the entire treatment.