Electrical Stimulation for Faster Bone Healing

Broken bones are among the most common orthopedic injuries. Most everyone will experience a broken bone at some point in their life, and just about every one of these people will be frustrated by the duration of time needed for full healing of these injuries. For that reason, we are constantly seeking ways to improve fracture healing. Bone healing after a fracture is a time-consuming process and rarely can result in a lack of full healing, a problem called a nonunion. In an effort to get back to activity as quickly as possible, some healthcare providers have experimented with different techniques to speed bone healing. One of these methods that has been attempted is with electric stimulation of the healing bone.

A doctor applying an electric stim
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Normal fracture healing occurs in a stepwise process. Each of these steps in this process occurs as a result of signals that are released within the body to direct this healing process. The goal of electrical stimulation is to increase this signal cascade in order to stimulate a more robust and rapid healing response. There are a number of both invasive and noninvasive techniques that are used to try to accelerate bone healing. Unfortunately, many of these techniques are invasive and expensive. Healthcare providers are constantly looking for safe, and effective ways to try and get bone to heal more quickly.

Electric Stimulation of Healing Bone

In most cases of fracture healing, electrical stimulation is performed through a process called capacitive coupling. In this process, two skin electrodes are placed on either side of the broken bone, and a low voltage battery passes a small current between the electrodes. The patient cannot feel the current, but it does have an effect on the bone cells.

The most notable effect is that this type of electrical stimulation seems to cause bone cells to proliferate. There are other cellular effects of electrical currents on the broken bone, but by stimulating bone cells to divide, healing of bone is accelerated. There are different types of electrical stimulation machines, and each has its own protocol for how long the stimulation is worn.

Who Is a Good Candidate for Electrical Stimulation?

Bone healing from electrical stimulation has been shown to be faster in patients who have nonunions (non-healing bones) or patients who have fractures that are difficult to heal. Electrical stimulation has not been shown to be helpful in uncomplicated fracture healing. Some fractures that are notorious for healing problems that may benefit from electrical stimulation include:

Not everyone who has one of these types of fractures will require electrical stimulation in order to achieve healing. However, if you are concerned about the progression of your fracture healing, it is reasonable to discuss electrical stimulation as an option with your healthcare provider.

It should be noted, that many insurance companies will not approve the routine use of electrical stimulation as a covered treatment for an uncomplicated fracture. In addition, while treatments like electrical stimulation can help to accelerate fracture healing, there are other important steps to achieving fracture healing that should be considered first. For example, smoking cessation, eating a good diet, and following your healthcare provider's treatment recommendations should all be considered much more of a priority than adding electrical stimulation.

A recent article compared a number of different trials. The bottom line was they found evidence that electrical stimulation can decrease the chance of a radiographic nonunion by approximately one third. Interestingly, the studies have not shown much of a difference in the actual functional outcome of people who used electrical stimulation versus those that did not.

A Word From Verywell

Electrical stimulation is a technique that has been used to try to accelerate bone healing. Electrical stimulation works by promoting the body's healing response after a fracture has occurred. Studies have shown that the rate of nonunion of a fracture does seem to be reduced in people who have used electrical stimulation. Electrical stimulation is a reasonable option for patients who have bone healing problems or fractures that have poor healing potential. It is probably not helpful in the healing of most fractures.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.