What is Electromedicine/Electrotherapy? Part I

Orthopaedic & Spine Center

Jeffrey R. Carlson, MD

In 2022, it seems that modern medicine is inundated with devices, treatments and therapies that utilize the power of carefully modulated electric current.  You can find these in Physical Therapy or physician offices, there are devices for use in surgery and some devices that are even available to be surgically implanted in the human body.  From keeping the heart in rhythm (pacemaker),  treating depression (electroconvulsive therapy),  overriding pain signals to the brain (neuromodulation/spinal cord stimulation), and  controlling tremors in neuromuscular disease (deep brain stimulation), it seems that the uses for electrical stimulation in medicine are endless. For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on how electrical stimulation is used to affectedly change the  healing or regeneration of tissue, nerves, or muscle and  to override pain signals that normally flow to the brain for the relief of pain.

You may think that the use of electromedicine would have come along after scientists figured out how to safely harness electricity, but this is not the case. The earliest reference to electromedicine in history is from Dioscorides and Greek physicians in 46 AD.  They documented significant therapeutic benefit to patients suffering from pain and circulatory conditions when electric eels were placed in their footbaths.

Fast forward to the late 1800’s, when a majority of American doctors were using some form of electromedicine to treat pain and to help wounds heal in their everyday medical practice.  This continued until the early 1900’s when a report devalued electromedicine and it fell out of favor as a treatment.  Apparently, no researcher of note decided to challenge these findings, or the methods used for the study. It wasn’t until the last few decades that electromedicine started to see a resurgence in popularity.

Although there are many electrotherapeutic devices on the market used to treat patients for almost every ailment imaginable, as an Orthopaedic surgeon, I’m the most familiar with those that help with pain relief, by giving the brain another sensation on which to focus instead of the pain signal.  These devices have also been shown to stimulate the release of endorphins, our body’s natural feel-good hormone.  Most people have heard of a TENS unit, which is a perfect example of an electromedicine device.  A TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) is battery operated (a built-in safety measure) and delivers an adjustable mild electric current through four electrodes attached to the skin over the painful body part.  The patient can turn the intensity up or down and use the TENS as often as necessary for pain relief.  For decades, TENS units have been used by patients for pain relief and some have been able to reduce or eliminate the need for pain medications by using the device regularly.

Because of the success and promise of the TENS unit, researchers have continued to experiment with new ways of using electricity to relieve pain and accelerate healing in patients who have injuries and/or degenerative health conditions.  Of special interest are those patients who suffer from chronic pain caused by nerve damage or disease, as their pain and discomfort is especially difficult to treat  successfully.

This research has led to the invention and continued improvement of Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) or Neuromodulation, which in extreme laymen’s terms, is like a TENS unit that is implanted internally in the human body with leads near the spinal cord for maximum effectiveness.  With an implantable battery that recharges through the patient’s skin, this device can be turned on or off and the frequencies and intensities can be changed according to the patient’s pain level.  It is also worth noting that before permanent implantation, the patient can trial SCS for a week to ten days to see if it provides significant pain relief for them, without having to commit to a surgical implantation.  SCS has helped tens of thousands of individuals with intractable pain live a much better quality of life and many have been able to greatly reduce the amount of pain medications they require or come off them completely.

A relatively new innovation in the field of electromedicine is called electric cell signaling or stimulation that is showing promise in the treatment of neuropathy.  Our practice is now offering the neo-GEN-Series® Electric Cell Signaling Treatment for patients who suffer from peripheral and idiopathic neuropathy.  This treatment will be covered in detail in the next article in this series.

We are pleased to provide this therapy as another treatment option for our neuropathy patients.  For a consultative appointment, please call 757-596-1900.