Tired of being trapped in an endless cycle of painkillers and their unpleasant side effects? Fortunately, an electrical stimulator provides a non-painful, non-addictive alternative to prescription opioids.

Often misunderstood, electrotherapy uses stimulation machines to relieve pain and repair tissue damage. Read our guide to discover how you, too, can have pain-free days and a better quality of life!

What is Electrical Stimulation?

Electrical Stimulation (e-stim), or electrotherapy, is a minimally invasive pain treatment technique that delivers mild electrical pulses to reduce discomfort and heal muscles.

E-stim works by using an electrical stimulation machine connected by wires to electrode pads, which directly deliver painless pulses to a patient’s muscles. These pulses can reduce pain by stimulating nerves as well as facilitating muscle repair and growth by inducing contractions.

electric stimulator
E-stim makes use of electrode pads to deliver painless electrical currents.
Image Source: Shutterstock

What Is an Electric Stimulator used for?

Treating chronic pain may invoke the use of painkillers or opioids; however, they can be associated with adverse side effects such as nausea, tolerance, physical dependence, and in some cases, addiction. These effects of prescribed painkillers are partly responsible for the growing popularity of electric stimulators.

People turn to electrotherapy because it is an alternative pain relief technique that is natural and non-addictive. This allows patients to alleviate pain while providing the peace of mind that they are safe and effective.

An electric stimulator also has applications beyond treating pain. This includes repairing damaged muscle tissue, helping stroke survivors re-learn basic motor functions, and treating arthritis and tendonitis. It even helps alleviate pain in mothers seeking to avoid anesthetics during childbirth.

E-stim is considered a “passive” mode of treatment. In contrast, most regular physical therapy programs involve strenuous participation from the patient. 📷

electric stimulator
E-stim’s popularity is growing due to its ability to provide pain relief without prescription painkillers’ negative side effects.
Image Source: Shutterstock

Do Electric Stimulators Actually Work?

While electrical stimulation is as effective as an interventional pain treatment technique, it isn’t a solitary treatment of pain and muscle damage in patients.

An electric stimulator is designed to be a complementary modality of treatment a patient receives during physical therapy. Combining e-stim with active therapeutic techniques such as myotherapy and chiropractic treatment as part of a more extensive rehabilitation program produces the best results.

The alleviation of pain that electric stimulators provide also varies per patient and disease state. One person may feel better after just one treatment, while another may need an extended rehabilitation program. Regular therapy may be required as relief only lasts for the duration of the treatment.

Despite this, e-stim remains an attractive mode of therapy as it is a convenient procedure that effectively repairs and relieves pain.

How Are Electric Stimulators Used?

While an electric stimulator is a passive treatment modality, it still helps to know what to expect. Here are the typical steps during a treatment session:

  1. A therapist will expose and clean the treatment area.
  2. Electrodes connected to a stimulation unit will then be placed onto the patient’s skin. These are easy to remove after the treatment.
  3. The therapist will engage the machine in a low setting at first. The patient will feel a painless tingling sensation.
  4. The intensity will be adjusted to the patient’s liking. For best results, the current should feel intense but not uncomfortable.
  5. Therapy for muscle stimulation or pain relief should last between 10 to 30 minutes.
  6. The therapist will remove the electrodes once the treatment is over. Some patients experience instant relief, while others may need more regular treatment.

Main Types of Electrical Stimulation

Generally speaking, e-stim has two primary applications – pain reduction and muscle stimulation. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) addresses pain relief, while electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is used for muscle healing.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

TENS is used exclusively for pain therapy, whether chronic (long-term) or acute (short-term). In this treatment, electrical impulses sent by a TENS unit reduce pain by mimicking signals sent by the nervous system. These pulses target nerves specifically while not affecting nearby muscles.

TENS utilizes electrical pulses that are sent to interfere with nearby nerve fibers that send signals to the brain. By preventing signals from the affected area from ever reaching the central nervous system, painful sensations are mitigated.

Additionally, these electric impulses help reduce pain by stimulating the body to produce natural painkillers such as endorphins.

TENS is commonly used to treat:

  • Acute or chronic pain
  • Migraines and headaches
  • Painful sports or activity injuries
  • Post-surgical pain
  • Arthritis
  • Cancer Pain
  • Tendinitis
  • Pain from wound healing
  • Labor pain
electric stimulator
TENS units for back pain are especially effective at relieving discomfort.
Image Source: Shutterstock

Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

Whereas TENS is used to reduce pain, EMS is a treatment used to repair and strengthen muscle tissue. It does this by using a slightly stronger electrical current than TENS to induce rhythmic contractions in muscles.

The electrical currents used by EMS stimulate these contractions similar to natural brain stimulation. These induced contractions exercise muscles similarly to the brain’s electrical impulses.The contractions facilitate healing by improving circulation. As the muscles repeatedly contract and relax, blood flows in and out, helping repair injured tissue that may have been damaged due to injury, surgery, or wear and tear.

EMS is especially beneficial for those who have lost muscular function, as the treatment results in contraction of these muscles.

In addition toincreasing blood flow, EMS is also used to decrease strain on muscles and joints by reducing inflammation. This helps restore function, range of motion and prevents dislocation of joints due to strained muscles.

EMS is commonly used to treat:

  • Muscle spasm
  • Muscle atrophy
  • Impaired blood flow
  • Deconditioned and weak muscles
  • Diminished range of motion
  • Venous thrombosis after surgery in the lower leg

Buying a Stimulation Machine


Regular electric stimulator treatment is often needed to alleviate areas under constant tension. As such, therapists often prescribe personal TENS units for back pain. These devices are also practical for many people TENS units are available online or over the counter at many pharmacies. . However, it’s important for a patient to purchase a unit only after receiving proper training from a therapist. Training involves knowing where to place the electrodes, how to place them, and setting the proper intensity.

There are significant differences between the units, such as timers, intensity, power source, portability, and the number of connections. The number of connections is important as more electrodes are needed if the area of treatment is large. For example, using a TENS unit for back pain, may require four or more connections for optimal therapy.

Individuals also react differently to TENS units. This is why it is important first to have several sessions with a therapist before buying a personal device. A professional will advise you to make sure your machine delivers the required treatment.

TENS units are safe for a majority of people. However, some may have adverse reactions to the treatment depending on some factors, which will be discussed later.

electric stimulator
A personal TENS unit.
Image Source: Shutterstock

For patients with chronic back and neck pain, purchasing a personal EMS unit could be beneficial. These areas tend to be associated with more tension than the rest of the body.

Buying a personal EMS unit shares many of the same benefits as purchasing a TENS machine, such as allowing patients to treat themselves at home. First, work with a therapist to determine what’s best for their condition.

However, it’s important to understand a key difference between these two types of e-stim units. An EMS device sends electrical pulses of a different frequency than a TENS device, causing twitching in the muscles. This may surprise patients who are used to the more passive TENS therapy.

Twitching muscles is a strange sensation for some, so a patient should start their EMS on a lower setting. Higher settings should be applied once the body begins to get used to the sensation.

Combo Unit

A personal combo unit may be best for patients who require more than one function from their electric stimulators. Most combo units combine the effects of EMS and TENS units. This gives a patient the capacity to treat themselves for both pain and muscle damage.

There are even some combo units that have more than these two features. These units provide patients with an all-encompassing solution to pain and healing.

Other Types of Electrical Stimulation

While the most popular forms of e-stim are TENS and EMS, electrotherapy has several other techniques to treat a broad spectrum of conditions.

Interferential current (IFC)

Interferential current treatment is similar to TENS as it uses electrical currents to stimulate nerve endings and reduce pain. However, IFC allows a therapist to use higher settings for pain relief without causing additional discomfort.

This is due to the criss cross arrangement of the four electrodes typical of the treatment. This arrangement causes the electrical signals to interfere with each other, providing pain relief at higher levels without causing discomfort.

IFC has proven effective in decreasing inflammation, swelling, and muscle spasms. It also shows effectiveness in treating symptoms of asthma.

Functional electrical stimulation (FES)

Functional electrical stimulation is an effective treatment option for those who suffer from muscle spasticity, muscle overactivity caused by damage to the spinal cord. This interrupts communication between the nervous system and muscles. It causes a muscle to become underused and eventually weakened or even paralyzed.

During FES, shocks delivered from an electric stimulator prompt a damaged muscle to move, acting in place of signals from the nervous system.

This treatment is mainly used to improve movement and motor control. Early research on the treatment has also shown promise in assisting with bladder and bowel function, breathing, and even converting brain signals into computer commands.

Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS)

Spinal cord stimulation is an alternative treatment to help those who deal with debilitating pain on a daily basis caused by repeated surgeries. The goal of SCS is a 50%-70% reduction in pain, although it varies per patient.

A spinal cord stimulator is a programmable neurostimulator device that is surgically implanted under a patient’s skin. It sends mild electrical currents directly to the spinal cord. These currents help alleviate pain by stimulating nearby nerves by masking the signals from the brain.

SCS is especially beneficial for patients who suffer from chronic pain and have to use a mix of opioids on a day-to-day basis. These drugs often come with many undesirable side-effects such as nausea and addiction.

It’s important to note that this neurostimulator does not eliminate the source of the pain. However, it’s effective in improving a patient’s quality of life by relieving them of the need to rely solely on prescription opioids.


During iontophoresis, an electric stimulator helps administer medication to a body part soaked or submerged in water. Different medicines are administered using this technique depending on the condition.

Iontophoresis is mostly used to deliver medications designed to decrease muscle spasms and inflammation directly into the skin. The direct application allows a health professional to use less of the drug for treatment, diminishing side-effects.

This treatment has a range of applications. It’s commonly used to treat hyperhidrosis disorder when a patient suffers from persistent and excessive sweating. It is also effective in treating calcium deposits that occur in conditions such as calcific supraspinatus tendonitis.

Galvanic Electrical Stimulation (GES)

Galvanic electrical stimulation relieves pain associated with major tissue trauma by improving blood flow. GES uses high voltage, low-frequency electrical currents that deeply penetrate tissues. It provides relief from muscle spasms and improved joint mobility.

A galvanic stimulation machine utilizes two electrodes. One electrode stimulates heat, increasing blood flow and delivering oxygen to the injured tissue to accelerate healing. The second electrode acts similar to ice, diminishing swelling by reducing blood flow.

GES differs from TENS and IFC by using a direct current instead of an alternating current.

What Are the Risks of Using a Stimulation Machine?

Consult a medical professional before beginning any electrical stimulation treatment. Some people may be susceptible to certain risks and side effects.

The most common negative reaction when undergoing electrotherapy is skin irritation where the electrodes are placed. This is easily treated by applying lotion to the affected area.

Muscle tearing is also a risk associated with the treatment. It happens if the intensity of the electric current is too high. If a tear occurs, the injury should be treated as an acute muscle injury. Treatment involving rest, ice, and elevation should begin immediately.

Electronic stimulation is not advisable to those with electronic implants, such as pacemakers, defibrillators, and other heart devices. The electronic stimulator’s signals may interfere with the implants and cause adverse reactions.

Additionally, electrotherapy is also not recommended for those who are pregnant. However, labor pains could be mitigated under the direct supervision of a healthcare professional.

Final Thoughts

Electric stimulation therapy is a viable option for those seeking to alleviate their pain or heal muscles without having to endure prescribed opioids that come with many negative side-effects.

As an alternative treatment technique, e-stim is non-addictive and generally not harmful. It’s also very straightforward, as, with proper training and advice, a patient can treat themselves at home.

However, it is important to remember that e-stim is not a miracle treatment. Instead, it works best when combined with other treatments for a holistic approach. Before starting any treatment, a patient should always first consult a healthcare professional. This ensures that the patient is both a viable candidate for e-stim and is aware of their condition’s most appropriate treatment.

Next Steps

Give us a call at Midsouth Pain Treatment Center and we will connect you with a provider who will be able to advise you on whether an Electric Stimulator for pain management is the right personal treatment plan for you. You can reach us at (866) 707-1942 or schedule an appointment here.

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