While the concept of using electricity on the body may sound painful, many people find the sensation relaxing. With TENS, for example, the individual experiences a tingling, vibrating, or buzzing sensation.

The exact mechanism of electrical stimulation’s beneficial effect remains controversial. Electrical stimulation may directly block transmission of pain signals along nerves. In addition, electrical stimulation has been shown to promote the release of endorphins, the natural painkillers produced by the body.

See Therapeutic Nerve Blocks for Neuropathy

Electrotherapy Side Effects

The most common side effect with electrotherapy is skin irritation or rash, caused by the adhesives in the electrodes or the tape holding the electrodes in place. Overusing electrotherapy may cause a burning feeling in the skin. Directions about the duration of therapy should be followed closely to avoid a problem.

Electrical stimulation should not be applied over malignancies or areas with broken skin or an infection. Bruising, bleeding, or infections are possible with the types of electrotherapy that penetrate the skin.

Placing the pads over the heart or over pacemaker leads could cause cardiac arrhythmia and placing them over a pregnant woman's abdomen could cause fetal damage. In fact, people with pacemakers and pregnant women are generally advised to avoid electrotherapy altogether.

See Management of Back Pain in Pregnancy

Placing the pads over the throat could cause low blood pressure. Using electrotherapy while driving is not recommended.


Types of Electrotherapy

All electrotherapy devices have certain similarities, such as using battery power to apply current to electrodes. The therapies vary in frequencies, waveforms, and effects, however. These are some of the most commonly used kinds of electrotherapy:

  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS)
  • Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS)
  • Interferential current (IFC)
  • Pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF)
  • Galvanic stimulation (GS)

Ultrasound and laser therapy are often grouped with electrotherapy, or the wider category of electro-physical agents, despite not delivering an electric current. With ultrasound, sound waves are directed to the affected area to speed up the healing process. Laser therapy may also be used to help tissue heal, and provides a more targeted and intense treatment.

See Cold Laser Therapy Pain Management Treatment

Dr. John Revord is a physiatrist specializing in the management of spine pain. He has more than 25 years of experience in spine care and practices at the NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin. Dr. Revord is specially trained in a range of non-surgical procedures, and he has co-authored articles published in peer-reviewed journals.