You can tell from the very name of this therapy that it is executed with the help of electricity. The question is ‘How’; how electrical stimulation is used to reduce pain, muscle weakness, stiffness, feeling of numbness of the limbs, etc.

Electrotherapy is provided in various forms with electricity in different frequencies and waveforms. These different types of electrical emissions are termed as below…

TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Stimulation) - This is the most commonly used form or device in electrotherapy. The frequency ranges from low to high, that is to say, from 60 to 200 Hz, however, high stimulation cannot be tolerated on the skin for more than 30 minutes! The process through which the stimulation is delivered to the pain area is via electrodes that are present on small sticky pads. The latter is attached to the skin of your pain area. The sensory nerves in the region are stimulated by current to provide effective pain relief.

PENS (Percutaneous Nerve Stimulation) - This refers to applying the electrical stimulation through the help of needles. It, therefore, combines western and eastern approaches to provide what you may perceive as ‘electro-acupuncture’! Hence the nomenclature - ‘percutaneous’. It refers to the therapy being provided beneath the epidermis. As the stimulation is provided closer to the nerve, the sensation of pain is less. Due to the technology used, PENS is usually applied in a clinical setup. But they may be used domestically too.

Why, therefore, would PENS be used instead of TENS?

The percutaneous therapy provides relief that is long-lasting and offers a better range of movement and physical activity to the patient. For instance, sufferers of diabetic peripheral neuropathy are often advised PENS therapy!

EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) - You might consider it to be a typical TENS unit where the current flow is directed to the weakened muscles (and not the nerves). The muscle contraction, in the process, helps them regain their strength and painless mobility.

Other modes of electrotherapy…

Apart from these two primary procedures, there are some other lesser-known electrotherapy processes. They are -

IFC (Interferential Current) - To put it simply, this is just a deeper form of TENS. It involves the application of 4000Hz current that penetrates deeper into the skin and the level of discomfort for the user is lesser too. It is used in cases of edema and muscle spasms and often used several times a day up to a month after surgery.

Galvanic Stimulation - The basic difference of this type with that of the other techniques like TENS and IFC is that it uses direct current (and not alternating current). While the current flows in the area, the positive pads act like ice packs (reducing blood flow and swelling in the area). The negative pads, on the other hand, act like a heat application (which increases the blood flow catalyzing the healing process).

Conditions where this treatment modality is applicable…

The detailed enumeration of ‘what electrotherapy is, and its types’ also requires the knowledge of conditions or ailments where this therapy might be applicable. Electrotherapy is used in the treatment of:

• Joint immobility or stiffness

• Joint and muscle pain

• Neuromuscular dysfunction

• Incontinence - both fecal and urinary

• Acute as well as chronic edema

• Any type of muscle atrophy

• Tissue damage, etc.

A word about modern advances in electrotherapy...

Medical science has been advancing rapidly since the last decade, with the increased integration of the latest technologies and chemical engineering. What we have been discussing so far in this article is available to us in much simpler and convenient forms. Amazingly, today, electrotherapy is available in the form of wearable devices. The wires, electrodes, and battery power - all have been combined into a single unit that can be worn in your upper or lower arm, back, thighs, etc.

All you need is to control a handheld device to regulate the stimulation levels!