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Electrical Stimulation & Physical Therapy

Whether you’re recovering from an injury or stroke or dealing with the pain of fibromyalgia or another condition, you may benefit from a physical therapy procedure called electrical stimulation, or e-stim.

What is e-stim?

E-stim uses electrical pulses to mimic the action of signals coming from neurons (cells in your nervous system). These mild electrical currents target either muscles or nerves.

Those muscles also improve their strength through repeated cycles of contraction and relaxation. E-stim can also “train” muscles to respond to the body’s natural signals to contract. This is an especially helpful benefit for stroke survivors who must essentially relearn basic motor functions.

The type of e-stim that focuses on pain relief sends signals on a different wavelength so they reach the nerves, rather than the muscles. Electrical stimulation can block pain receptors from being sent from nerves to the brain.

What are the main types of e-stim?

The two main types of e-stim are transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS).


TENS may be used for chronic (long-term) pain as well as for acute (short-term) pain. Electrodes are placed on the skin near the source of the pain. Signals are sent through nerve fibers to block or at least reduce the pain signals traveling to the brain.


EMS uses a slightly stronger current than TENS to get muscles to contract. The unit’s electrodes (also placed on the skin near the affected muscles) cause rhythmic contractions. This can improve muscle strength if the user attempts to contract the muscle simultaneously.

How does e-stim work?

E-stim uses small electrodes placed on the skin. The electrodes are small, sticky pads that should come off with little discomfort at the end of the session.

For muscular stimulation, the pulses will reach the muscles, signaling them to contract.

Pulses aimed at the nervous system block the transmission of pain signals from reaching the spinal cord and brain. The pulses also stimulate the body to produce more natural pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

What does it treat?

  • back pain

  • cancer-related pain

  • dysphagia (trouble swallowing)

  • fibromyalgia

  • joint pain

  • arthritis

  • muscle conditioning (mostly for athletes, such as long-distance runners)

  • muscle injury from trauma or disease

  • nerve inflammation

  • poor muscle strength

  • urinary incontinence

  • spinal cord injury

  • stroke

  • surgery recovery


E-stim treatments have become standard parts of physical therapy for many conditions.

When used as part of injury or surgery recovery, e-stim should be used as a prescribed, supervised treatment, though home use may be appropriate in many cases.

Just be sure to tell your healthcare provider if you have a heart condition or are pregnant.

Sharing your medical history and a list of medications and supplements you take is always a smart and safe approach, too.

If you’re interested in e-stim as a tool for muscle conditioning or pain relief, talk with your doctor about your options and how to proceed safely.

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