Electrotherapy: Electrocution in the Name of Medicine?
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Electrotherapy: Electrocution in the Name of Medicine?

What is electrotherapy? If you have looked into physical therapy and rehabilitation, then you’ve probably heard the terms NMES, EMS, and TENS thrown around here and there. These terms can be very confusing if you haven’t done any research in this field. Honestly, electrotherapy sounds a little science fiction-y and scary if you haven’t heard anything about it. Have no fear! Hopefully this article can clear up some of the confusion for you!

What is Electrotherapy?

You’ll have to forgive me; the title of this article is a bit misleading. Electrotherapy is NOT electrocution by any means. Electrotherapy is a treatment method that sends electric currents through skin and tissue in order to treat pain or prevent muscle atrophy, depending on the type of electrotherapy that you are using. Electrotherapy has been used in physical therapy for many years, but it is only recently that it has become popular as well as safe. Just a side note: you should never use an electrotherapy machine without first being instructed in how to do so. You are dealing with live electric currents and that can be dangerous, even with built-in safety precautions in each device.


Okay… what on earth do these acronyms mean?! TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (I know, it’s a mouthful!) is a process that sends electrical signals to your nerves in order to block pain signals. It is used for pain relief exclusively! How does it work? The electrodes are put on your skin on both sides of the part that is experiencing pain. You turn the machine on and it sends electric currents between the two electrodes. These electric signals scramble the regular signals that come from your nerves, thereby changing the brain’s job from “hey, these nerves say I should feel pain” to “hey, I don’t know what these nerves are saying, so I won’t do anything.” Scrambled signal to the brain equals no pain response.  Pretty cool, right?

NMES, or neuromuscular electrical stimulation, is a process that sends electrical signals to your nerves in order to make your muscles contract and relax.  Sometimes NMES is also referred to as electro muscular stimulation (EMS). This is used to keep muscles from atrophying, or dying. How does it work? The electrodes are put on both sides of the muscle that you are trying to rehabilitate, similar to using a TENS unit. Instead of scrambling the nerve signals, the EMS machine sends signals to the muscles that tells them to contract and relax very quickly. This helps the keep the muscles active so that they don’t atrophy.

Both TENS and NMES machines are used in physical therapy, but they have different purposes. Obviously, this means that they are not interchangeable. Make sure that you are using the right machine for the right job.

Why would you use electrotherapy?

Usually, electrotherapy would be used to rehabilitate muscles and increase range of motion after you have experienced a serious injury. NMES and other electrical muscle stimulation treatments are FDA approved only in cases in which an individual needs muscle rehab. It is NOT a way to get in shape without doing the work. It seems to make sense that a machine that makes your muscles relax and contract would by default keep your muscles more tone, but this hasn’t been proven to work outside of physical therapy. Remember that, despite our best efforts, we have not found a better way to get in shape other than actually exercising! Electrotherapy treatments are not a replacement for good old-fashioned exercise; however, the treatments are beneficial when used with regular exercise and other physical therapy sessions.

This article gives the very basic definition of electrotherapy and some key differences in electrotherapy machines. I encourage you to continue to research and learn all that you can about electrotherapy before you try it at home. Remember that nothing can replace the experience and advice given at a doctor’s office!

Electrotherapy: Electrocution in the Name of Medicine?
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