In the 21st century, the discussion of electrotherapy has expanded to include a number uses for medically treating specific disorders, physical and psychological. The therapy applies electrical currents to the body in regulated doses to alter the physiology of the patient’s nerves. If you have heard of a heart pacemaker, that is an example of electrotherapy at work. One of its most important advantages is that it is non-invasive, meaning there is no surgery used to affect the treatment of the disorder.
Often seen as an alterative treatment, electrotherapy is used
- in the treatment of pain
- inhibited blood flow
- repair of body tissue
- various types of incontinence
The number and frequency of treatments varies with the particular condition of the patient.
To fully understand how electrotherapy works requires an extensive education in the physics of electricity and neurology. For our purposes, it will be sufficient to divide the treatments into low, medium, and high frequency currents and recognize their importance on the specific disorder.
- Low frequency treatments are generally used to affect the sensory and motor nerves: sensory nerves carry impulses from the sensory organs to the brain, and motor nerves that carry impulses from the spinal cord to the muscles. The amount of electricity used in these types of treatments is below 1000 hertz.
(To better understand the definition of a hertz, the measurement of electrical current, compare the amount of current applied in electrotherapy to the 60 hertz current which is most commonly used to supply electric current to homes.)
- Medium frequency treatments use electrical current in the range between 1000 hertz and 10,000 hertz. The wide range of electrical current allows for the treatment of such conditions as muscle spasms, inflammation, pain management, and to stimulate circulation.
- High frequency therapy involves the application of electricity above 10,000 hertz and is sufficiently strong to generate heat. This is the strength of current often used in muscle relaxation therapy.
Two subdivisions of electrotherapy are:
- Auriculotherapy, which applies electrostimulation to the ear, is being used to treat a number of ear and pain conditions, including tinnitus. However, therapy to the ear is not limited to auditory conditions, as the therapy has proven successful in other disorders such as arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, shingles, irritable bowel syndrome, and even has help people stop smoking.
- Iontophoresis, also known as EMDA, is the delivery of pharmaceutical medication through the skin using an electrical charge. One way to view this procedure is to think of how a nicotine patch (called a transdermal patch) works – by absorbing the medication through the skin. The electrotherapy assists in the absorption.
- Regenerative Electrotherapy, whose field of focus is the regeneration of body tissue. Applying a combination and hybrid of other electrotherapy techniques, they assist in the regeneration of damaged soft tissue, which results in the management of pain and other conditions.
There are a number of electrical devices used to administer electrotherapy beyond the EMDA method. Electronic muscle stimulators have been known to increase the amount of endorphins, bringing about a relief from pain. One of the most well-known and popular devices that act as a muscle stimulator is the TENS device.
TENS is an acronym for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. The primary use of TENS is for the treatment of back pain and is often used in sports medicine. The device has a series of electrodes that are placed at the patient’s discretion either over the affected area itself, over the nerve which is causing the back pain, or on the opposite side of the body. The patient also has control over the amount of electrical current applied to the area, either high or low.
One unique product EMPI has available is their VitalStim Therapy unit which is the only FDA approved device for treating dysphagia, which is a difficulty in swallowing giving the sensation that food is stuck in the throat. The device “re-educates” the throat muscles with continued therapy.