What is electrotherapy?
When you hear the term “electrotherapy” it may at worst bring to mind images of people with a mental health condition undergoing traumatic electroshock treatments to the brain, or Frankenstein’s monster being brought to life.
However, far from these Hollywood induced nightmares, electrotherapy is a gentle and harmless treatment method used by chiropractors to help repair soft body tissues and alleviate pain.
T.E.N.S.(Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation)
An Effective Pain Management Tool
The essence of electrotherapy is directing small currents of electricity through a patient’s skin, and by doing so either encourage muscles to heal or to block the electrical neural signals that tell the brain to experience pain.
There are various forms of electrotherapy that can be used very effectively to treat acute or chronic pain or to stimulate nerves and muscles into healthier function. These include:
• Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
• Therapeutic Ultrasound
• Shockwave Therapy
• Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)
In these different forms, electrotherapy has a wide range of benefits, besides reducing pain and healing injuries. For instance, it’s non-invasive and drug-free, mostly painless, and produces minimal side effects. It can also be highly effective.
For these reasons, electrotherapy treatment is one of the most common methods physiotherapists use in daily practice.
How Does Electrotherapy Work?
Electrotherapy can be used to treat several complaints and conditions. These fall into the two main categories of tissue repair and pain relief.
Tissue repair conditions
Inducing electric currents in soft tissues can help increase local blood flow and stimulate muscles. After all, muscles move due to electronic signals from the brain and nervous system so that an external current can induce similar effects.
Health conditions of this kind that can be treated with electrotherapy include:
• Oedema (a watery fluid that collects in tissue)
• Muscle wastage or atrophy
• Limited range of motion
• Limited blood circulation
Musculoskeletal injuries such as:
• Tennis elbow
• Jumpers knee
• Carpal tunnel syndrome
• Plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the foot)
• Shoulder injuries
As mentioned, applying electrical signals can block or slow down the “Pain Gate” neural transmissions to the brain from affected body areas. Electrotherapy has also been found to encourage the release of endorphins, the body’s painkilling hormones, which increases the overall effect. Examples of pain conditions physiotherapists can treat with electrotherapy include:
• Nerve pain
• Pain from musculoskeletal injuries
• Morning stiffness
• Post-surgical pain
• Neck pain and stiffness
• Lower back pain
It’s important to note that electrotherapy treatment should not be done near the heart or in people with pacemakers or heart conditions, around the throat to avoid lowering blood pressure, on pregnant women around the fetus, or some other conditions.
Wellness at Its Best
Electrotherapy treatment methods
As there are several types of physiotherapy electrotherapy treatments, there are also different methods by which to deliver it. However, the general principles are the same regardless.
1. Electrode pads
2. Electroacupuncture needles
Most often, electrode pads are attached to the skin around the affected area, and a battery-powered device is connected to run a mild current between them. Electrodes can be self-adhesive, or they are affixed with surgical tape.
In cases of electroacupuncture needles inserted into the skin and these themselves are charged. With therapeutic ultrasound, a transducer is used with a gel instead of electrode pads.
Ultrasound is also slightly different from other electrotherapy methods in that it transmits high-frequency sound waves into the body rather than electric signals. Sessions tend to last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or so. Each session depends on the severity of the injury or pain of the patient.
Electrotherapy can produce electrically induced heat as a relaxation method for muscles. Other therapeutic mechanisms involve increased lymphatic flow, greater mobility of proteins and blood cells, protein synthesis, management of incontinence through strengthening musculature around the pelvis, and re-education of muscle movement through electrical stimulation.