Treating Neck & Back Pain with Electrotherapy & TENS

Living with back and neck pain can prevent you from fully enjoying and engaging with life. Unfortunately, there isn’t always an easy answer for back pain relief. What works for one person may not help another. While some people respond to treatments like over-the-counter pain medications or physical therapy, others may need different solutions for dealing with their pain.

It’s important to know all your options when seeking treatment for chronic back pain. In particular, electrotherapy can be an effective option for pain management.

But what is electrotherapy? Does it hurt? And, do I need to go to a doctor’s office or can I do it at home? Use this guide to answer these questions and more about how non-invasive electrotherapy can help you.

What is Electrotherapy?

Electrotherapy is an umbrella term for using mild electrical pulses to diminish pain in a target area of the body. Typically, all of these therapies use a device with electrodes to deliver a low-voltage electrical current to problem areas.

One of the main goals of electrotherapy is pain management. Using electricity can also help improve circulation, which in turn activates the body’s healing process. This may help strengthen muscles, stimulate bone growth, and repair damaged tissues. In addition, electrotherapy may increase motion and function in an affected or stiff area. For example, your doctor may prescribe electrotherapy as an alternative treatment for a stiff neck.

But, wouldn’t shocking myself with electricity cause even more pain? Since these are low-voltage electrical currents, a person usually only feels a tingling or buzzing sensation. Some people even find using these machines to be relaxing.

Better yet, the side effects of electrotherapy, if any, are generally mild. The most common side effect that patients report is skin irritation caused by the adhesive on the electrodes. Some people may also experience nausea or fainting. And, not using the device properly could lead to a burning sensation on the surface of the skin.

One of the major benefits of electrotherapy is it’s alternative nature. As you probably know, some narcotic pain medications can have dangerous side effects and may be habit-forming. Reducing the use of these drugs—especially if you have a history of substance abuse—can lead to less problems with dependence down the road.

What Spine & Joint Conditions Can Electrotherapy Be Used to Treat?

Electrotherapy has shown promising results for those who suffer from musculoskeletal disorders that cause neck and back pain. In addition, this form of therapy may help with certain types of nerve pain. Some conditions treated with electrotherapy include:

  • Fibromyalgia symptoms
  • Osteoporosis pain
  • Diabetic neuropathy
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Promoting bone growth after a procedure such as a spinal fusion
  • Wound healing
  • Acute or chronic back and neck pain
  • Whiplash
  • Cancer-related pain
  • Muscles injuries from sports or occupational strain

Electrotherapy has helped many with conditions such as these and more. Sometimes, however, patients don’t respond to the treatment. Experimenting with the placement of electrodes and how the current is delivered may increase success. In addition, it’s best to combine this therapy with other treatments like physical therapy, back pain or sciatica exercises, or nerve block treatments.

While electrotherapy is safe for most people, people with certain health conditions should avoid it. Those with pacemakers may suffer a dangerous cardiac arrhythmia (irregular heartbeats) when electrodes are placed near the heart. In addition, using a device while pregnant could cause damage to the fetus. Those with certain neurological conditions should also consult with a doctor before starting this treatment. In addition, electrotherapy is not recommended for those with cognitive problems like dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Types of Electrotherapy Treatments

The electrotherapy treatment you choose depends on the source and severity of your pain. It’s advised that you talk to your doctor or another health professional before starting any of these treatments.

In many cases, a physical therapist or chiropractor for back pain will test the devices and how they affect you during an office visit. If the treatment appears to be helpful, you could even use it at home. Electrotherapy devices range in price from around $20 all the way up to hundreds of dollars. If the treatment is prescribed by a doctor, insurance may pay some or all of the cost.

Here are some of the common types of electrotherapy that your doctor may recommend:

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

One of the most common electrotherapy devices resembles an AED (similar to the machines used to revive patients in cardiac arrest). Small, sticky pads with electrodes are placed over or near the area where you feel pain. (Your doctor or physical therapist will help you determine the best area of placement for these pads.) The battery-operated unit then sends a series of low-voltage electrical currents to the area. A controller will let you increase or decrease the electrical current as well as the frequency and patterns of stimulation.

There is some speculation as to how TENS works. It is generally accepted that a TENS unit assists with blocking or overriding pain signals from the nerves to the brain. The altering of these pain receptors can provide temporary pain relief. In addition, TENS may improve circulation and reduce muscle spasms in the lower back.

Some TENS treatments only last for a half hour. In other cases, you may use the TENS device for several hours at a time—even while napping. You may want to keep a daily journal of your pain levels, the settings you use, and any other symptoms that may come and go. This allows you and your doctor to troubleshoot and find the best settings for your pain relief.

Percutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (PENS)

An alternative to TENS, percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS) uses needles instead of pads to deliver electrical currents. Think of it as acupuncture with electrical stimulation. The advantage of using needles instead of pads means the currents pulse closer to the pinched nerves and muscles. This can provide almost immediate pain relief for some patients.

This type of therapy is generally used in a physical therapy or health care setting as an outpatient procedure. In some cases, you can also use a PENS device at home.

Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)

If the source of your pain is due to muscle problems, electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) may be an option. Similar to a TENS device, the EMS uses electrodes to deliver currents to the muscles instead of the nerves.

The ultimate goal of EMS is helping to rebuild muscle tissue. When an electric current stimulates a muscle, it contracts. Unlike typical exercise, EMS helps to contract more muscle fibers to improve their strength. Think of it as a super-charged workout.

EMS is especially helpful when muscles have been weakened. This includes when an athlete sustains a muscle injury or after an injury or when a part of the body has been immobilized for a period of time.

Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF)

PEMF takes a different approach to using electricity for pain relief. Instead of treating nerves or muscles, PEMF seeks to heal at the cellular level. During treatment, specialized coils create an electromagnetic field around part or all of the body. These electromagnetic waves stimulate the cell’s electrons, aiding with the healing process and stimulating bone growth.

Think of it this way: Your cells and their electrons lose power due to age, disease, or injury. PEMF treatments can revive the cells and make them more effective at healing, rebuilding, and fighting disease.

There are several different styles and sizes of a PEMF device. The most common device resembles a thick yoga mat with an attached controller. Treatment is often performed in a therapist’s office. However, other PEMF products can be purchased for home use.

As you can see, there are many options when exploring the benefits of electrotherapy. The first step involves finding a team of professionals who are well-versed in cutting-edge treatments for back pain.

Finding the Best Electrotherapy Treatment

So which electrotherapy technique is best for you? While there are several factors to consider, choosing the right treatment could make all the difference between living with pain and getting your life back. The Advanced Spine Center can help you sift through your options and discover the most appropriate treatment for you.

From properly diagnosing your pain to choosing the most suitable treatments, our dedicated team at the Advanced Spine Center is ready to help. For personalized treatment from the best orthopedic doctors in NJ, schedule a consultation today and discover how you can return back to life—pain-free!