Types of Electrical Stimulation Used in Physical Therapy

If you suffer an injury or illness that results in pain and loss of functional mobility, your healthcare provider may refer you to physical therapy. Your physical therapist will likely work with you to improve your ability to function, and he or she may use various therapeutic modalities to augment your rehabilitation program.

Electrical stimulation is a type of therapeutic treatment that can serve many different purposes in physical therapy. It can be used to decrease pain and inflammation, improve circulation, and it can help your muscles contract properly. Electrical stimulation often is used to augment your physical therapy program after an injury or illness; it should not be the only treatment you receive when attending physical therapy.

This list of different types of electrical stimulation can help you understand how it is commonly used in physical therapy. Be sure to ask your physical therapist about your specific needs and gains that are expected when you use electrical stimulation in the physical therapy clinic.



Pain therapy with TENS
Stefan Rupp / Getty Images

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a type of electrical stimulation used to help decrease acute and chronic pain. TENS works by altering or interrupting the painful signals that travel from injured tissues to your brain. It is performed by placing electrodes over the painful part of your body and using electricity to alter pain signals to your brain.


Russian Stimulation

Russian stimulation is a form of high-frequency electrical wave stimulation that uses electricity to contract muscle tissue. After injury or surgery, you may be experiencing muscle weakness. Often, muscles are inhibited after an injury and are unable to generate a forceful contraction. Russian stimulation is used to help improve the contraction of your muscles.


Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) is used much like Russian stimulation. Your physical therapist may use NMES to help your muscles contract properly after injury or surgery. This form of muscular re-education can be useful in helping you return to normal function quickly after an injury or surgery.

NMES can also be used to help you perform functional tasks; small switches in the unit can be applied to your body that control when the stimulation is on or off. When performing a task, like walking, the switch may turn the stimulation on when your leg muscles are supposed to contract, and then turn it off when they are meant to rest.


Interferential Current (IFC)

Inferential current (IFC) electrical stimulation is a type of electrical stimulation that your physical therapist may use to help decrease your pain and improve circulation to injured tissues. The IFC works much like TENS, but the current can be easily moved and varied to target your most painful area of injury.


High Voltage Stimulation

High voltage electrical stimulation is a type of electrical stimulation that your physical therapist may use to help decrease your pain or improve circulation. It is also occasionally used to help with wound healing. It is thought that the high voltage stimulation helps to change the type of cells near your wound, and this can speed healing.



Iontophoresis is a type of electrical stimulation used to administer medication into your body through your skin. The medication, such as dexamethasone, can be used to help decrease inflammation, decrease localized swelling, or decrease muscle spasm. Some medication used in iontophoresis can also help to decrease calcium deposits and can be used to help manage scar tissue.

A Word from Verywell

While electrical stimulation can be a useful tool to augment your rehab program, you should remember that it is a passive treatment. You do very little while your therapist applies the stim to you. Most successful rehab programs involve an active component of exercise and movement. If your PT recommends you use electrical stimulation in your therapy program, be sure to ask questions and understand what the goal of the stim use is. And always make sure you have an active, self-care exercise program in place to take control of your rehab program.

5 Sources
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.
  1. Jin HK, Hwang TY, Cho SH. Effect of electrical stimulation on blood flow velocity and vessel size. Open Med (Wars). 2017;12:5-11. doi:10.1515/med-2017-0002

  2. Vance CG, Dailey DL, Rakel BA, Sluka KA. Using TENS for pain control: the state of the evidence. Pain Manag. 2014;4(3):197-209. doi:10.2217/pmt.14.13

  3. Hauger AV, Reiman MP, Bjordal JM, Sheets C, Ledbetter L, Goode AP. Neuromuscular electrical stimulation is effective in strengthening the quadriceps muscle after anterior cruciate ligament surgery. Knee Surg Sports Traumatol Arthrosc. 2018;26(2):399-410. doi:10.1007/s00167-017-4669-5

  4. Fuentes JP, Armijo Olivo S, Magee DJ, Gross DP. Effectiveness of interferential current therapy in the management of musculoskeletal pain: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Phys Ther. 2010;90(9):1219-38. doi:10.2522/ptj.20090335

  5. Brown CD, Lauber CA, Cappaert T. The Effect of Dexamethasone Iontophoresis on Decreasing Pain and Improving Function in Patients With Musculoskeletal Conditions. J Sport Rehabil. 2015;24(3):327-31. doi:10.1123/jsr.2014-0172

Additional Reading
  • Prentice, W. (1998). Therapeutic modalities for allied health professionals. New York: McGraw-Hill.

By Brett Sears, PT
Brett Sears, PT, MDT, is a physical therapist with over 20 years of experience in orthopedic and hospital-based therapy.