A Brief History of Electrotherapy & Its Uses for Pain Relief

The idea of using electricity on a human being can sound like a page out of a sci-fi novel to some. Because of that, many are surprised to find that the use of electricity in the medical field extends back further in history than even the lightbulb.

Reading even a brief history of electrotherapy and its uses for pain relief is valuable both to appreciate this significant medical practice and to recognize ways it can move forward.

Electrotherapy in Antiquity

Many of us learned in elementary school that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity with his famous kite experiment in 1752. In reality, he discovered the connection between electricity and lightning. The world had been aware of electricity in some capacity as early as the days of the ancient Greeks.

Because of that, it’s not surprising that this society was the first to use a recorded form of electrotherapy. Even though they didn’t have a name for electricity or electronic devices, they found a source of electricity from nature—the torpedo fish, also known as the electric ray.

These creatures are capable of producing between 8 and 220 volts of electricity. (As a reference, a modern TENS unit uses a nine-volt battery). Medical workers of the day found that applying the torpedo fish to the body could potentially relieve chronic pain, even from conditions like arthritis.

Experimentation in the Age of Enlightenment

The late 1600s to the late 1700s marked an explosion of scientific exploration and discovery known as the Age of Enlightenment. The beginning of the period saw the word “electric” first enter the English language from Sir Thomas Browne in 1642. The Leyden Jar, a glass vessel built to contain an electric charge, was invented in 1745.

At the same time, a student at the University of Halle in Germany by the name of Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein began experimenting with electricity generated by humans in the medical field. He wrote about it in his Treatise on the Use of Electricity in Medicinal Science (Abhandlung von dem Nutzen der Electricität in der Arzeneiwissenschaft.)

Through his studies, he discovered that electricity could be applied to the body to help improve paralysis, increase heart rate, and even improve sleep. However, this experimentation didn’t bring about the best results at the time. Because of this, and scientists eventually declaring there wasn’t enough evidence to support it, electrotherapy faded from the view of science for a time.

The Advent of the Gate-Control Theory of Pain

Scientists tinkered with electrotherapy periodically after Kratzenstein, such as John Wesley in 1747’s suggestion that electricity was a universal panacea or Giovanni Aldini’s attempts at curing insanity with static electricity. But it wasn’t until 1965 that electrotherapy began to gain mainstream recognition.

This was the year that Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall put out a publication titled “Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory” that described the Gate-Control theory. This theory suggests that as pain signals travel through the spinal cord, they go through “gates” made of nerve fibers. These gates can either allow pain signals to be transmitted to the body or block the signals.

This theory offered a real scientific basis for electrotherapy. Electrodes could theoretically be used to help stimulate these gates to block pain signals in order to offer pain relief.

Electrotherapy in Hospitals

In 1974, American neurosurgeon Clyde Norman Shealy developed a device known as a TENS unit, or a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit. These units had electrodes that could be attached to affected areas, offering a low-voltage shock that stimulates the nerves to offer pain relief.

Shealy’s device was initially intended just to test electrotherapy’s potential to bring pain relief to migraines, chronic back pain, and grout. However, the tests were so effective that the TENS units became a common sight in hospitals.

The Discovery of Endorphins

Endorphins’ connection to the history of electrotherapy and its uses in pain relief is indirect. However, because the discovery of endorphins is so connected to advances in pain relief, they are worth noting. Endorphins, which are naturally occurring hormones in the body that improve mood and provide pain relief, were discovered just after the creation of TENS units at the University of Aberdeen in 1975.

This discovery made by Dr. Hans Kosterlitz and John Hughes revolutionized the way pain medications were made as pharmaceutical companies attempted to mimic the naturally occurring endorphins. It also made doctors aware of other activities that could trigger hormone production, such as:

  • Exercise
  • Laughter
  • Eating dark chocolate
  • Human touch
  • Music
  • Spending time outside

TENS treatments may also help the body produce endorphins for increased pain relief. This adds another layer of credence to electrotherapy as a means of relieving chronic pain.

Electrotherapy Today: Home TENs Units

Originally, TENS and other electrotherapies were only available in hospitals under close observation by medical professionals. But as the technology and science of electrotherapy have improved, medical professionals have created new TENS units that may be used in the home.

Electrotherapy of the modern-day has a wide range of uses as far as pain relief goes. Some of the common options include:

  • Arthritic pain
  • Sports injuries
  • Endometriosis
  • Menstrual pain
  • Muscle strain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Labor pain

Along with TENS units, the medical field has created devices that may be used for a number of similar types of electrotherapy, such as electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), interferential electrical current stimulation (IFC), Russian stimulation, pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF), and Galvanic stimulation (GS).

Future of Electrotherapy

As far as electrotherapy has come, it still has its limitations. For instance, professionals do not recommend placing electrodes directly above the heart because of its potential to cause harm. However, it’s possible that this may not always be the case.

It’s possible that one day electrotherapy may even help those with atrial fibrillation, a condition characterized by a rapid, irregular heartbeat. Research related to this topic is still ongoing, but it only goes to show how far this treatment has come since its days in ancient Greece.

You can experience the fruits of electrotherapy’s long history by trying a TENS therapy unit in your home today.

A Brief History of Electrotherapy & Its Uses for Pain Relief