Electrical Stimulation: How Does it Work and Why You May Not Need It

        Electrical Stimulation: How Does it Work and Why You May Not Need It


Electrical stimulation is a wonderful tool that physical therapists can use on a regular basis. 

There are different types of electrical stimulation units.  These different types of units create different types of waveforms are and are used for very different reasons.  Some waves help to reduce pain by stimulating certain parts of nerves that can send painful signals to the brain.  Others can cause muscle contractions which can help to strength muscles. 


How does it work? 


Often patients are curious as to how electrical stimulation works.  The specific wavelengths, frequencies, ramp up times and other technical aspects can be a bit overwhelming.  These things are important to know if you want to get the most out of your experience with electrical stimulation.  However, the basic concept of electrical stimulation is pretty simple.


Electricity is the language of our nervous system.  All of our nerves, including the brain and spinal cord, communicate by using electrical pulses.  This communication allows everything in your body to happen, including pain.  Sometimes, the communication is not very strong in some parts of the body which makes it difficult to activate muscles. Electrical stimulation uses the language of our nervous system to change or magnify the messages. 


For example, let’s say you are having back pain.  You know that you are having back pain because the nerves from your back muscles are sending electrical pulses up to your brain.  Electrical stimulation can change the signal that is sent from your muscle to your brain via your nerves by interrupting the conversation.  Instead of the brain getting a signal from the nerve saying “Ouch, this hurts!”, it receives a signal that says, “Hey, that feels weird.”  And just like that, the signal is changed.


The same thing happens when a muscle is not contracting well, except that instead of overriding the message from the nerve, the electrical stimulation makes that message louder.  If the muscle can’t hear the message, it doesn’t move.  So, the electrical stimulation amplifies the message so that the muscle knows what to do.


When should I not use electrical stimulation?


Electrical stimulation is used for a variety of reasons.  The two most common uses are to reduce pain and to improve muscle contractions, although it can be used for other purposes as well. 


Sometimes, it is not safe to use electrical stimulation.  These are contraindications and include:


Altered sensation

Impaired mental status

Implanted electrical device (including pacemakers or pain stimulators)




If you have any of these conditions, do not use an electrical stimulation unit until you have spoken with a physical therapist to assess whether or not it is safe for you to use.


Electrical stimulation is not necessary for every condition.   There are lots of instances when it doesn’t benefit you in any way and can just be a waste of time.  Again, your physical therapist will be able to help you determine if indeed it is something that should be part of your plan of care.


Should I buy one?


While it is possible to purchase electrical stimulation units online with just a few clicks, it is important to know whether or not it will be an effective treatment for you.  A physical therapist can help you decide if electrical stimulation will be beneficial and which type of unit you should purchase, if any.  Because physical therapists receive extensive training on electrical stimulation they can teach you not only how to use a home unit, but also what you may need to do to optimize the effects. 



Physical therapists are experts in pain management.  Electrical stimulation may be part of a plan to reduce your pain, but it will never be the complete answer on its own. Call us at 352-243-4422 for help deciding if it is right for you.