Back pain–whether acute or chronic–can range from mildly uncomfortable to truly debilitating. And in some cases, the exact cause of the pain can be very difficult to diagnose. If you’ve ever experienced severe back pain yourself (or spent time with friends or family members who have), you can probably understand why physicians do what they can to help patients manage the pain as part of their treatment. Relieving back pain can improve quality of life and allow you to get back to doing the things that you enjoy.
Depending on the circumstances, doctors can use a variety of approaches, ranging from relatively conservative manual therapies (such as chiropractic adjustments, spinal mobilization, massage techniques and acupuncture) to more aggressive ones involving drugs and surgery. It might surprise you to know that in some cases physicians also use electricity to help relieve patients’ back pain. In fact, electrotherapy has been practiced in a variety of forms for over 100 years.
How Electrical Stimulation Is Performed
One method that doctors use is to stimulate the spinal cord using a small electrical pulse generator implanted in the affected individual’s back. Although researchers aren’t certain why this sort of stimulation reduces back pain, they believe that the electricity may work to “distract” the nerve impulses. Instead of focusing on the area that would normally be triggering pain, the nerves focus on the electrical stimulation they’re receiving. As a result, the distracted nerves do not seem to send pain-related messages to the brain and the patient doesn’t experience the sensation of pain.
There are a number of companies that make these types of implants, each of which works somewhat differently from the others. However, all have shown to be equally effective when compared in studies. The actual results vary more patient-to-patient than device-to-device.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)
TENS also uses electrical stimulation to reduce pain, but it is applied very differently. Small electrodes are placed on the skin in the areas where pain occurs and are attached with adhesive. At most, you will feel some warmth or tingling where the electrodes are attached. Galvanic Stimulation (GS) and Interferential Current (IFC) are similar systems that are powered by battery or from an adapter that works from an electrical outlet. Electrical stimulation is used often in physical rehabilitation settings.
Increasing Endorphins to Kill Pain
In addition to interfering with the nerve signals that cause pain, electrical stimulation has also been proven to increase the production of endorphins. These brain chemicals are released in response to stress or pain and they act as natural pain killers by interacting with receptors in the brain and reducing your perception of pain.
For anyone who has had to live with back pain, effective treatment options that don’t involve riskier drugs or surgical procedures are often attractive and worth a try. There are rarely side effects experienced with electrical stimulation therapy and, when they do occur, they’re usually limited to minor allergic reactions to the adhesive or transient pain resulting from the electrical stimulation. However, be sure to tell your doctor if you are pregnant or have any other health conditions.