Various treatments for back pain have been developed over the years; some are effective, but most give minimal relief if they give relief at all. One treatment modality being bandied about is electrotherapy – the use of electricity along nerve pathways to block pain. There are two methods of electrotherapy – TENS and electro-acupuncture.
What is TENS?
TENS is the acronym for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation; the therapy sends electrical pulses along nerve pathways to stimulate the nerves and block pain. The unit is connected to the skin via electrodes, and the TENS unit sends impulses at a specified width, frequency, and intensity. TENS pulses can be high frequency and low intensity (no motor contractions) or low frequency and high intensity (causes motor contractions).
Uses for TENS
TENS has been used effectively in physical therapy, to relieve muscle spasms. At low frequency and high intensity, the TENS unit contracts muscles; for patients with severe spasms, the therapy gently works the muscle until the spasm releases.
TENS has also been used as a pain therapy. When the pain is chronic, and not involving the muscles, TENS is used in the high frequency – low intensity mode, to stimulate nerves. The stimulation blocks pain receptors, easing the pain felt in the treated area.
Is TENS Effective?
Whether or not TENS is effective depends on whom you ask; in clinical settings, patients report significant pain relief from TENS therapy, but there are no research studies to back up the empirical evidence. Research studies should be taken with a grain of salt, as studies can prove any point a researcher wishes to make. How the study was conducted, who paid for it, and who actually did the research all come into play, as some studies are done with the idea of discrediting therapies the mainstream medical community does not approve of instead of objectively evaluating the treatment on its own merit. Empirical evidence suggests TENS is effective at joint pain relief, and until a well-conducted study is made that disproves it, the empirical evidence is enough to support the therapy.
What is Electro-acupuncture?
Electro-acupuncture is a form of traditional acupuncture done with needle and an electrical current, as opposed to just using needles.
Traditional acupuncture is based on the concept of chi, or energy, flowing through the body. When the body is healthy, chi flows along meridians without interruption. When a state of disease occurs, the meridians involved in the disease become blocked, and the energy flow is reduced or stopped.
Acupuncture is used to release the blockage, allowing energy to flow freely. The therapy involves inserting needles into nerves along the blocked meridian, stimulating the nerves and freeing the blockage. Sometimes it is necessary to manipulate the needles to effect the release, and this is where electro-acupuncture comes into play.
The acupuncturist inserts needles along the affected meridians just the same as an acupuncturist does for traditional acupuncture. The needles are then connected, via small clips, to a device producing an electrical current. This device, like a TENS unit, controls the frequency intensity, and width of the electrical impulse. The current provides continuous stimulation to the nerves in the meridian without the necessity of hand manipulation of the needles by the acupuncturist. Electro-acupuncture can provide continuous stimulation of the meridian for up to 30 minutes at a time. Most people cannot sustain a fine-motor activity for this length of time, so electro-acupuncture fills the void caused by fatigue.
Is Electro-acupuncture Effective on Back Pain?
Whether electro-acupuncture is effective on pain, back or otherwise, depends again on whom you ask. Patients find electro-acupuncture effective on pain, just as they do TENS, but again, there is no hard research to satisfy the Western skeptic. This is true for traditional acupuncture as well, although most mainstream practitioners have come to accept traditional acupuncture as effective.
When chronic back pain is muscular in nature, both TENS and electro-acupuncture are effective in treating it. If the pain is neurological, both treatments may be effective, but success is not guaranteed. When used in conjunction with hot and cold therapies, and topical analgesics, electrotherapy can be efficacious on chronic pain. When the alternative is mainstream analgesics, electrotherapy is certainly worth trying, as mainstream analgesics come with a host of nasty side effects, and are to be avoided if at all possible.
TENS and electro-acupuncture are safe, effective treatments when performed by knowledgeable practitioners; do your homework, and find certified therapists.
No therapy is effective on every patient, so there are no guarantees electrotherapy will work for you. Then again, there are no guarantees it won’t work, either, so give it a try. You’ve got nothing to lose but your pain.