Week 27 Tip: The Health Benefits of Electrical Stimulation Therapy

By: David Meine

| June 30, 2022

Do you deal with regular pain somewhere in your body? When you get out of bed in the morning, do you have to move slowly because something is hurting? The American Academy of Pain Medicine reports that over 100 million Americans suffer with chronic pain. That’s an astonishing number! And even worse, over half of those pain sufferers believe they have little to no control over their pain. 

As someone who suffered from debilitating chronic pain for years, I am grateful to be able to share some of the ways I have eliminated daily pain from my life. We’ve shared many of these tips already as part of our Full Year of Resolutions. This week we’re discussing Tip #27, the health benefits of stimulation therapy. 

Electrical stimulation, or e-stim, is a type of physical therapy treatment we can use in the comfort of our own home. I first learned about stimulation therapy from my chiropractor 13 years ago as part of treatment for my back problems. Since then, we’ve bought a few systems over the years, and Carla and I both use it regularly as part of our training and recovery.

Pain wants you to pay attention

When you feel pain, this is your body’s way of signaling you that something is wrong, and you need to pay attention. If pain is left untreated, it can worsen and cause additional damage. And, chronic pain is costly! Health economists from Johns Hopkins reported the cost of chronic pain is as high as $635 billion a year – more than the yearly costs for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. Pain hurts your body, and your bank account!

The good news is that there is more we can do to combat pain than we realize. It is so empowering when we find ways to alleviate our pain and take back our health! Electrical stimulation therapy has been an important piece of solving the pain puzzle for me.

What is e-stim?

Electronic stimulation therapy uses small electrical pulses to mimic neuron signals (from the cells in your nervous system) to the muscles and nerves. This causes muscle fibers to contract, which increases blood flow as well as nutrient distribution. It also serves as a “muscle recruiter,” getting additional muscle fibers involved than if you were to just do a standard warm-up or cool-down session. This makes e-stim a great option for faster recovery, increased strength and endurance, and even reduced risk of potential injury.

How do you use electrical stimulation therapy?

I first started using stimulation therapy at the physical therapist’s office. Each session involved applying electrodes to the part of my body needing treatment, which at the time was my back. These electrodes were connected through a wire to an e-stim machine. I would feel a slight tingling sensation, which the therapist would turn up until it felt strong but still comfortable. After a session I would always notice an improvement. My back would feel better.

Since then, I am happy to report that through many healthy lifestyle choices (and a few surgeries), I no longer deal with chronic back problems. I no longer have to go to the physical therapist. Now I have my own e-stim machine that we consistently use at home. Carla and I both use it preventatively, to get our muscles in good shape, and when injured, to recover faster. 

Our current machine (specifics on this are included below) is portable and doesn’t even require wires. It uses Bluetooth and comes with two electrode patches, so I can place them in two different places at once. Then you just turn the machine on and set it to the amount of pulse you want. That’s it. You can sit and read a book or watch a show while the machine does the work for you. A session is usually about 20 minutes. You can watch a video of us demonstrating how we use our machine here

Four benefits of electrical stimulation therapy

There are many benefits of stimulation therapy. Here are four of our favorites:

Benefit #1: Improved blood flow

You’ve heard me talk about the cycling accident I had a little over a year ago. One of the first things I did to start the healing process was attach my e-stim machine. I wanted to get blood flowing to all the injured parts of my body. This helped the inflammation go down and the healing to accelerate.

Stimulation therapy helps increase blood flow to muscle tissues. The electrical pulses help the muscle to act as a pump, increasing oxygen-rich blood flow into the muscle. 

The circulatory system’s most important job is regulating blood flow based on the demands of local tissues. Electrical stimulation induces sympathetic tone to blocked or constricted blood vessels. This in turn inhibits nerve activity and reduces tension in the arterial muscles, all of which results in improved blood circulation. 

Data undeniably confirms the correlation between increased blood flow and performance recovery. In addition, study results show that “this (recovery) effect can be obtained by using neuromuscular electrical stimulation-induced blood flow since this passive, simple strategy can be easily applied during short-term recovery.” Or, in other words, e-stim therapy is easy to use and very effective!

Benefit #2: Reduces muscle pain

Another important benefit is that e-stim therapy reduces muscle pain. This is what we use our e-stim machine for the most. In fact, I bought a portable unit we can take on trips with us. At our last pickleball tournament, Carla’s muscles were really sore. We were playing several hours of intense pickleball each day. At the end of the day, she’d attach the two pads to the areas that hurt. Twenty minutes later, her pain would be almost completely gone. What an amazing benefit!

I use our e-stim on a regular basis to help with muscle repair and to proactively prevent pain. Those electric pulses send signals to targeted muscles, making them contract. This helps blood flow, as we discussed above. Electrical stimulation can also block pain receptors from being sent from nerves to the brain, which modifies our perception of pain. Nerve stimulation also raises the level of endorphins, the body’s natural pain-killing chemical, which also helps block our perception of pain. Pretty cool, right?

Studies show that athletes report decreased muscle pain after stimulation therapy. They are also able to train harder and feel more recovered, leading to higher performance outcomes. 

But e-stim therapy isn’t just for performance or endurance athletes. It’s also for everyday people who are balancing regular life stressors. Electrical stimulation therapy can be a helpful tool for recovery from a long flight after a work trip, a poor night’s sleep, an extra-hard workout, or any of life’s aches and pains.

Benefit #3: Increased muscle and bone strength

Another benefit of stimulation therapy is increased muscle and bone strength. Muscles get strengthened through repeated cycles of contraction and relaxation as the machine delivers those electric impulses. E-stim also “trains” muscles to respond to the body’s natural signals to contract. 

Although it is not a substitute for strength training, e-stim is effective at increasing muscular contraction rates and strength in athletes. Studies show that when used in conjunction with proper strength training, e-stim helps to boost both muscle strength and power. This provides increased endurance and physical working capacity of the muscles. In fact, gains of 1% in muscle mass and a boost of 10-15% in muscle function were reported within five to six weeks of ongoing electrical stimulation therapy use.

In addition to strengthening muscles, e-stim strengthens bones. Studies show that e-stim therapy can actually reverse osteopenia. Science confirms that regular use improves bone density, especially as we age. 

E-stim and rehabilitation

There are several promising studies on the use of e-stim for patients dealing with extra health challenges. Stroke patients, who sometimes need to relearn basic motor functions, showed significantly improved muscle strength. The improvements lasted long beyond the testing period as they were incorporated into daily life. 

E-stim has also been beneficial for people during rehabilitation stages to keep muscles active. That’s because it’s effective at stimulating and reeducating muscle fibers without high amounts of muscle load or stress. This is especially helpful after any type of spinal cord injury. Researchers are also using e-stim to help people with advanced multiple sclerosis be able to walk again. 

If you ever have an injury or receive a diagnosis that prohibits your ability to achieve full range of motion, electrical stimulation therapy is a great option to aid in recovery and rehabilitation.

Benefit #4: Improved psychological recovery after injury

There’s another interesting benefit from stimulation therapy –  improved psychological recovery after injury. This is more important than you might realize. Studies show that unintentional injuries really impact our mental health. In fact, depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder are common after injury. It’s mentally empowering when you feel like you can do something to help your injury heal.  

I know not everyone is a competitive athlete like I am, but when I get injured, I can sometimes get depressed. I really miss those endorphins I get from my regular workouts! Plus, I find myself obsessing about the workouts I’m missing while I rehab. We work so hard for the gains, but it seems like we lose them so fast! It usually only takes a couple of weeks for my body to start reversing course on my fitness goals. I start worrying that all the work I’ve put in to get to a particular race or a tournament will be down the tube.  

This is where my e-stim machine can really help. I realize that even if I can’t do my regular workouts or training sessions, I can stimulate my muscles and bones and improve my blood flow. When I’m finally healed and able to get back to my routine, I haven’t lost much progress. That gives me so much peace of mind. It really helps me focus on what I can do instead of what I’m not able to do.

Carla’s story

Carla has a great example of using electrical stimulation therapy to recover from an injury:

“Several years ago I was getting ready for a national tennis tournament and started doing sprint work. I overdid it like I sometimes do, and I ended up with a bulging disc. There were six weeks until the tournament, but my physical therapist told me I couldn’t play tennis for five weeks. I was so upset!  How could I possibly be ready for this big tournament if I couldn’t play for five of the six weeks?? 

My therapist had me come in three days a week. In addition to some other things I was doing, he put me on an e-stim machine for 30 minutes each time I came in. My back always felt better after those sessions, and I was tempted to go out and play, but I didn’t because I trusted that my PT knew what he was doing.  

After five weeks, he cleared me to go play again. I was able to play with my team for a week, and then we headed off to Tuscan to compete. I played some of my best tennis ever and our team won the National Championship. At the time I didn’t know anything about stimulation therapy and what it was doing, but boy am I glad my physical therapist understood the value of it! I truly believe that it’s one of the main reasons why I was able to have a full recovery in five weeks and still perform like I hadn’t taken any time off.”

What Electrical Stimulation Therapy Units do we recommend?

Many physical therapists and chiropractors use e-stim as part of their therapy if you have an injury that needs that kind of attention. We also love having this available at home for us to use whenever the need arises. There are many e-stim machines that are fairly reasonable. I have owned a few different e-stim units (sometimes referred to as TENS units) over the years. Here are a couple of options I can recommend:

Wireless Unit

I really like my HiDow e-stim unit because it is very compact. It doesn’t have any wires, and I can control it from a small device. We take this on all of our trips now, even if we’re not going to be competing and using it for competitive training purposes. We always find a variety of reasons to use it and are glad we have it with us. It is a little pricier, but I think it’s worth it. It is a medical-grade device and consistently gets 5-star reviews.

Wired Units

There are a couple of basic units that are more reasonable that you can get on Amazon that we recommend.  The first one is a wired HiDow unit. The other one is a TENS 7000 Digital unit. This unit is only $31. That’s less than the cost of your co-pay at the physical therapist!  These both come with wired electrode patches and a control pad, and they are highly rated machines. 

Could you benefit from electrical stimulation therapy?

E-stim can treat a whole range of conditions causing nerve and musculoskeletal pain. Promising research says it can even be very helpful in treating pain that doesn’t respond well to traditional treatments. Here’s a list of conditions that are known to respond well to electrical stimulation therapy:

  • 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

Let us know if you have any questions about electrical stimulation therapy. We know that for many of you, this is new information. Here at More Than Healthy, we love sharing the things that have helped us on our journey to optimal health. 

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Thanks for joining us, and we’ll see you next week.