Skip to content

What is Electrostimulation?

At its most basic level electrostimulation, or electro stimulation, is a way of using electrical impulses to contract muscles or treat pain. This can allow muscles to build strength, regain functionality, and more.

The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved electrotherapy for the following uses: relaxing painful muscle spasms, preventing muscles waste from lack of use, increasing circulation to damaged or diseased areas, teaching muscles how to function properly again, and keeping and improving range of motion.

How Does Electrostimulation Work?

Physical therapists use one of several FDA-approved medical devices to stimulate tissues, a muscle, or a group of muscles, in your back with an electrical current. The current mimics the way your central nervous system (CNS) contracts muscles.

To perform electrostimulation, physical therapists begin by placing electrodes on your body at strategic points. Electrical stimulation then passes through the electrodes and into the tissue underneath, sometimes causing the muscles to contract. Your physical therapist may adjust the settings on the device to produce either a gentle or a strong muscle contraction, with the strength depending on your condition and treatment.

Physical therapists tend to use common types of electrical stimulation techniques. Each medical device has a unique effect on back pain, and is used to produce different results:

  • Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS): TENS units are designed for the patient to use at home for the treatment of neuromusculoskeletal pain. They are compact units roughly the size of a deck of playing cards. This high-frequency stimulation is nearly painless, but it typically results in shorter periods of relief from pain. Lower-frequency electrical stimulation is not as comfortable but usually results in longer-lasting pain relief. Even though TENS units are meant to be used at home, they should still only be used prior to discussion with a licensed health provider.
  • Interferential Current (IFC): IFC is a more clinical form of electrotherapy. It is believed to disrupt the transmission of pain at the level of the spinal cord. IFC devices are only intended to be used by trained physical therapists.
  • Galvanic Stimulation (GS): GS devices use a pulsed electrical current to stimulate muscle contractions. It is often used to ease the pain that results from nerve injuries and muscle strains, as well as to stimulate healing. GS uses a direct current to create an electrical field over the area being treated, which has unique therapeutic benefits of its own, such as altering blood flow. Like IFC, GS may only be administered by a licensed provider and is not suitable for at-home use.

How Can Electrostimulation Help Back Pain?

Back pain can be very painful, but electric stimulation can often help. For example, people with back pain often suffer from muscle spasms. Electrical stimulation can help relieve these spasms, sometimes even causing immediate relief from pain. Electrical stimulation also eases back pain by increasing blood flow to the injured or diseased area of your back. This promotes healing by strengthening the muscles in injured areas. As these muscles heal, pain naturally decreases as your body experiences fewer problems.

Electrical stimulation can also be applied directly to the nerves in painful areas, which can also often results in pain relief. Exactly how electric stimulation relieves nerve pain is not completely understood at this time. However, it is believed to work by overwhelming the nerves in the area, confusing them and disrupting their ability to send pain signals to the brain. It may also ease pain by causing the brain to release endorphins, which are powerful morphine-like substances that your body produces in response to pain or other nerve stimulation. Many experts theorize that it is a combination of both of these effects that makes electrical stimulation such a potent way of relieving back pain.

Learning More About Electrostimulation

If you are experiencing back pain, ask your doctor whether physical therapy or electrostimulation could be right for you. He or she will be able to help you explore available treatment options, and discuss the best options for fighting your back pain symptoms.