How Physical Therapists Use Electrical Stimulation

Electrical stimulation is a therapeutic modality commonly used in physical therapy as part of a comprehensive physical therapy program. There are different types of electrical stimulation, or e-stim as it is commonly referred to. Each type may be used to accomplish a different goal during your rehab program.

If you are having difficulty moving around after injury or illness, you may benefit from physical therapy to help restore normal mobility. Your PT may choose to use e-stim to help you move better or feel better.

Here are some examples of how your physical therapist uses electrical stimulation during physical therapy. When you have a basic understanding of what your PT is trying to accomplish while using e-stim, you will be fully invested in your rehab program.


Control Chronic and Acute Pain

Electrical stimulation applied to a woman's rotator cuff.

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Transcutaneous electrical neuromuscular stimulation (TENS) is a form of electrical stimulation used by your physical therapist to help control pain. The electricity stimulates nerve endings in your skin that communicate pain signals to your brain. These signals can be interrupted to help you decrease the pain that you are feeling.

A word of caution: TENS is a passive treatment, and most successful rehab programs are ones that are built around active exercises. Be sure you are only using TENS to control your pain as part of an active rehab program.


Improve Muscular Function

Photo of a man with drawn on muscles for arms.

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Your physical therapist may use electrical stimulation to help improve the way your muscles contract. This may be especially important after surgery, injury, or a long-term period of immobilization.

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) is often used to help your muscles to relearn how to contract properly. To perform NMES, your PT will place electrodes on specific areas of a muscle that are not contracting properly. Electrical impulses will then be introduced, and these impulses will work to contract your muscle. While the electricity is stimulating your muscle, you may be working with the stimulation to improve neuromuscular recruitment of the injured muscle.

Some specialized stimulation units, like the Bioness, use functional NMES. A small switch is added to the unit that can rapidly turn it on or off during functional activities like walking and reaching. These units can help people regain functional independence after stroke or injury that causes paresis or muscle atrophy.


Control Incontinence

Photo of a woman running to potty.

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If you are having difficulty with incontinence, your PT may use electrical stimulation to help you engage the proper muscles that help keep urine flow at bay. Your PT may also use a form of electrical stimulation as biofeedback—electrical impulses that monitor your muscle contractions to tell you if you are working the right muscles properly. (This can be difficult to monitor visually or by touch because of the location of muscles that control urination and bowel movements.)


Reduce Trigger Point Symptoms

Photo of a man holding his painful neck.

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If you are feeling muscle spasms and have trigger points, your PT may use electrical stimulation such as interferential current to help reduce your symptoms. The electricity can be used to contract and relax the affected muscle, helping to decrease the tension in that muscle.

Remember, active stretching after the electrical stimulation is necessary to help keep the trigger points calm. Most research indicates that the electricity may reduce your symptoms, although the trigger point in your muscle may still remain.


Administer Medication

Photo of injectable medicine.

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Iontophoresis is a form of electrical stimulation that is used by your physical therapist to administer medication. The electricity pushes the medicine through your skin and into your injured tissues.

Iontophoresis is often used to administer anti-inflammatory medicine such as dexamethasone. It may also be used to help reduce muscle spasm or break up calcific deposits that may form in muscle tissue or tendons.


Heal Wounds

Photo of a man caring for a wound on a child's leg.

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Some physical therapists are wound care specialists, and they may use electrical stimulation to accelerate wound healing. High voltage electrical stimulation has been shown to be of some use with wounds that are difficult to manage and to heal properly. The electricity improves circulation around the edges of the wound to aid in healing.

Your physical therapist is a movement specialist who can prescribe exercises and home programs to help you move better and feel better. Sometimes, external supports and modalities, such as electrical stimulation, may be used to help augment your active rehab program. Once you're aware of the options for using electrical stimulation, you'll have no surprises when your therapist introduces electricity into your rehab program.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can electrical stimulation help a rotator cuff tear?

    There are signs that electrical stimulation might be able to help a rotator cuff tear. According to one study, it may help prevent muscle atrophy (weakened or shrunk tissue) of the deltoid after operative surgery is performed. The deltoid muscle on each shoulder helps stabilize the upper arms and shoulder joints, and preventing atrophy could help with regaining full function.

  • Does electrical stimulation reduce pain from trigger points?

    One study shows that electrical stimulation can reduce pain from trigger points in people with shoulder adhesive capsulitis (frozen shoulder). In order for electrical stimulation to be effective, therapeutic exercises need to be performed afterward. It may also help with the shoulder's range of motion.

9 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.
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  4. Stewart F, Berghmans B, Bø K, Glazener CM. Electrical stimulation with non-implanted devices for stress urinary incontinence in women. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;12:CD012390. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD012390.pub2

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  6. Karpiński TM. Selected medicines used in iontophoresis. Pharmaceutics. 2018;10(4). doi:10.3390/pharmaceutics10040204

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  8. Lee, Goo Joo et al. Effects of Electrical Muscle Stimulation for Preventing Deltoid Muscle Atrophy after Rotator Cuff Repair: Preliminary Results of a Prospective, Randomized, Single-blind TrialClinics in shoulder and elbow. 2019;22(4):195-202. doi:10.5397/cise.2019.22.4.195

  9. Shanmugam S, Mathias L, Manickaraj N, Kumar K. U. D, Kandakurti P. K, Dorairaj S. K, & Muthukrishnan R. Intramuscular electrical stimulation combined with therapeutic exercises in patients with shoulder adhesive capsulitis: A randomised controlled trialInternational Journal of Surgery Protocols. 2021;25(1):71–83. doi:10.29337/ijsp.25

Additional Reading

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