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What Is Electrical Stimulation Therapy?

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  • Written By: Marjorie McAtee
  • Edited By: W. Everett
  • Last Modified Date: 09 November 2016
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Electrical stimulation therapy typically uses electrodes attached to the skin to deliver weak electric shocks to the muscles. These shocks are often used to help the muscles contract, preventing muscle atrophy in people suffering from paralysis by exercising the muscles. This therapy is sometimes used to help patients suffering from paralysis regain some degree of muscle strength and movement. The belief is that these electrical impulses delivered into the muscles can help the nervous system rehabilitate from injury by training muscles to resume movement. Weak electrical impulses that do not typically cause muscle contractions can be used to treat localized pain, such as that caused by rheumatoid arthritis or minor soft tissue injury.

Patients suffering from partial paralysis due to nerve damage, spinal cord injury, or spinal cord disease can often benefit from electrical stimulation therapy. Electrodes on the skin deliver electrical impulses into the muscles. In some cases, these impulses are strong enough to cause muscle contractions. Physical therapists can typically adjust the strength of electrical impulses as needed.

Using electrical stimulation to cause muscle contractions is generally viewed as another way of exercising muscles. For patients suffering from paralysis, there may be no other means of exercising muscles that can no longer move on their own. For some patients in a Canadian study, electrical stimulation therapy helped to significantly strengthen muscles and restore a large degree of movement.

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Some physical therapists believe that electrical stimulation therapy can help the nervous system re-learn muscle movements after nerve or spinal cord injury. The treatment generally needs to be repeated consistently over a long period of time for this level of rehabilitation to occur. This type of therapy often can't, however, restore full muscle function in paralyzed patients. It can help prevent muscle atrophy by exercising muscles, and it can increase blood circulation to the injured area, which usually supports more rapid healing.

Electrical stimulation therapy can also be used to treat chronic and acute pain conditions. It can treat back pain and help to ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Sprains, shingles, and other painful conditions can benefit from this treatment. When the therapy is used to treat pain conditions, however, weaker electrical impulses are used. These impulses do not generally cause muscle contractions, but may cause a tingling feeling in the treatment area.

Pain treatment through electrical stimulation therapy can be done in the home, using a hand-held device. The length of treatment sessions can vary, depending on the severity of the patient's pain symptoms. This type of therapy can cause abnormal heart rhythms in people with pre-existing heart conditions, and therefore may not be suitable for all patients.

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