After six weeks of receiving stim treatments as part of my physical therapy, I find myself wondering if the jolt old Ben Franklin supposedly got from flying his kite in a lightning storm helped his aches and pains.
What is Electrical Muscle Stimulation?
Electrical muscle stimulation, also known as stim or estim, involves placing gelled pads on the skin. These pads are connected to a machine that sends small doses of electrical current through the pads and into the muscles beneath them, making the targeted muscles flex or jump. Stamford Healthcare Associates, LLC explains this exhausts the muscle, causing it to relax and increasing blood flow to the area. This combination promotes healing and causes the brain to release natural painkilling chemicals known as endorphins into the bloodstream.
Stim is often the easiest part of physical therapy for patients; all they have to do is lay there and let the machine do its thing. (I got in the habit of bringing a book to read.) The pads are vaguely slimy feeling, but actually leave no residue or mess. The treatment itself can be initially unsettling, causing tingling pins and needs in the area being stimulated. But, once you grow accustomed to the sensation, it actually becomes relaxing.
Why Do Physical Therapists Use Electrical Muscle Stimulation?
According to Medicine Net, electrical muscle stimulation is used to treat muscle spasms, increase range of motion, prevent muscle atrophy and help reeducate muscles damaged by injury, surgery or a neurological episode like a stroke.
The procedure is also used to lessen swelling and inflammation and to treat pain, which is why it was prescribed for the chronic Tietze syndrome that I’ve been battling. In my case, it didn’t do much for the swelling, but it did seem to help combat some of the achiness the exercises they put me through caused.
Are There Different Kinds of Electrical Muscle Stimulation?
There are different kinds of stim, each with a special purpose, says Boston Sports Medicine. Inferential stimulation, which is the kind used on my ribs, runs two channels of current through the body, interrupting pain signals from the area. It’s used to treat acute and chronic pain, swelling and inflammation. Pre-mod stimulation treats pain in soft tissue. It was often used to soothe the muscles in my upper back after they were aggravated by a physical therapy session. Russian stimulation is used to strengthen a weak muscle. Hi-volt stimulation is applied to lessen pain and assist in wound healing in with people like diabetics who often have issue getting wounds to heal properly.
Can You Use Electrical Muscle Stimulation Therapy at Home?
There are home-based stim units. The strongest ones require a prescription, but companies like Icy Hot and Omron also offer over-the-counter versions for pain relief without medication. Used incorrectly, these units can cause serious harm. Make sure you read and follow the directions, and talk to your doctor or physical therapist if you have questions.
Now that my time in physical therapy is over, I’m investigating a few of the home-based products. While stim wasn’t a cure for me, I appreciate that it gives me some pain relief without me having to pop a pill. My physical therapist said that, used correctly, the home units would be fine for me. If you’re interested in trying stim at home, talk with your doctor or physical therapist to make sure it’s safe for you.