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Use of electrical apparatus. Interrupted galvanism used in regeneration of deltoid muscle. First half of the twentieth century.
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Not to be confused with electroconvulsive therapy or electroshock therapy.
Reeve 41480.jpg
Use of electrical apparatus. Interrupted galvanism used in regeneration of deltoid muscle. First half of the twentieth century.

Electrotherapy is the use of electrical energy as a medical treatment.[1] In medicine, the term electrotherapy can apply to a variety of treatments, including the use of electrical devices such as deep brain stimulators for neurological disease. The term has also been applied specifically to the use of electric current to speed wound healing. Additionally, the term "electrotherapy" or "electromagnetic therapy" has also been applied to a range of alternative medical devices and treatments.

It has not been found to be effective in increasing bone healing.[2]


In 1855 Guillaume Duchenne, the developer of electrotherapy, announced that alternating was superior to direct current for electrotherapeutic triggering of muscle contractions.[3] What he called the 'warming affect' of direct currents irritated the skin, since, at voltage strengths needed for muscle contractions, they cause the skin to blister (at the anode) and pit (at the cathode). Furthermore, with DC each contraction required the current to be stopped and restarted. Moreover alternating current could produce strong muscle contractions regardless of the condition of the muscle, whereas DC-induced contractions were strong if the muscle was strong, and weak if the muscle was weak.

Since that time almost all rehabilitation involving muscle contraction has been done with a symmetrical rectangular biphasic waveform. During the 1940s, however, the U.S. War Department, investigating the application of electrical stimulation not just to retard and prevent atrophy but to restore muscle mass and strength, employed what was termed galvanic exercise on the atrophied hands of patients who had an ulnar nerve lesion from surgery upon a wound.[4] These galvanic exercises employed a monophasic wave form, direct current.

In the field of cancer treatment, DC electrotherapy showed promise as early as 1959, when a study published in the journal Science reported total destruction of tumor in 60% of subjects, which was very noteworthy for an initial study.[5] In 1985, the journal Cancer Research published the most remarkable such study, reporting 98% shrinkage of tumor in animal subjects on being treated with DC electrotherapy for only five hours over five days.[6] The mechanism for the effectiveness of DC electrotherapy in treating cancer was suggested in an article published in 1997.[7] The free-radical (unpaired electron) containing active-site of enzyme Ribonucleotide Reductase, RnR—which controls the rate-limiting step in the synthesis of DNA—can be disabled by a stream of passing electrons.

Current use[edit]

Although a 1999 meta-analysis found that electrotherapy could speed the healing of wounds,[8] in 2000 the Dutch Medical Council found that although it was widely used, there was insufficient evidence for its benefits.[9] Since that time, a few publications have emerged that seem to support its efficacy, but data is still scarce.[10]

The use of electrotherapy has been researched and accepted in the field of rehabilitation[11] (electrical muscle stimulation). The American Physical Therapy Association acknowledges the use of Electrotherapy for:[12]

1. Pain management

2. Treatment of neuromuscular dysfunction

3. Improves range of joint mobility

4. Tissue repair

5. Acute and chronic edema

6. Peripheral blood flow

7. Iontophoresis

8. Urine and fecal incontinence

Electrotherapy is primarily used in physical therapy for relaxation of muscle spasms, prevention and retardation of disuse atrophy, increase of local blood circulation, muscle rehabilitation and re-education electrical muscle stimulation, maintaining and increasing range of motion, management of chronic and intractable pain, post-traumatic acute pain, post surgical acute pain, immediate post-surgical stimulation of muscles to prevent venous thrombosis, wound healing and drug delivery.[citation needed]

Some of the treatment effectiveness mechanisms are little understood, with effectiveness and best practices for their use still anecdotal.

Electrotherapy devices have been studied in the treatment of chronic wounds and pressure ulcers. A 1999 meta-analysis of published trials found some evidence that electrotherapy could speed the healing of such wounds, though it was unclear which devices were most effective and which types of wounds were most likely to benefit.[8] However, a more detailed review by the Cochrane Library found no evidence that electromagnetic therapy, a subset of electrotherapy, was effective in healing pressure ulcers[13] or venous stasis ulcers.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, "The IEEE standard dictionary of electrical and electronics terms". 6th ed. New York, N.Y., Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, c1997. IEEE Std 100-1996. ISBN 1-55937-833-6 [ed. Standards Coordinating Committee 10, Terms and Definitions; Jane Radatz, (chair)]
  2. ^ Mollon B, da Silva V, Busse JW, Einhorn TA, Bhandari M (November 2008). "Electrical stimulation for long-bone fracture-healing: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials". J Bone Joint Surg Am 90 (11): 2322–30. doi:10.2106/JBJS.H.00111. PMID 18978400. 
  3. ^ Licht, Sidney Herman., "History of Electrotherapy", in Therapeutic Electricity and Ultraviolet Radiation, 2nd ed., ed. Sidney Licht, New Haven: E. Licht, 1967, Pp. 1-70.
  4. ^ Licht, "History of Electrotherapy"
  5. ^ Humphrey, C.E.; Seal, E.H. (1959). "Biophysical approach toward tumor regression in mice". Science 130: 388–390. doi:10.1126/science.130.3372.388. 
  6. ^ David, S.L; Absolom, D.R.; Smith, C.R.; Gams, J.; Herbert, M.A. (1985). "Effect of low level direct current on in vivo tumor growth in hamsters". Cancer Research 45: 5625–5631. 
  7. ^ Kulsh, J. (1997). "Targeting a key enzyme in cell growth: a novel therapy for cancer". Medical Hypotheses 49: 297–300. doi:10.1016/s0306-9877(97)90193-6. 
  8. ^ a b Gardner SE, Frantz RA, Schmidt FL (1999). "Effect of electrical stimulation on chronic wound healing: a meta-analysis". Wound Repair Regen 7 (6): 495–503. doi:10.1046/j.1524-475X.1999.00495.x. PMID 10633009. 
  9. ^ Bouter LM (March 2000). "[Insufficient scientific evidence for efficacy of widely used electrotherapy, laser therapy, and ultrasound treatment in physiotherapy]". Ned Tijdschr Geneeskd (in Dutch; Flemish) 144 (11): 502–5. PMID 10735134. 
  10. ^ Nicolakis P, Kollmitzer J, Crevenna R, Bittner C, Erdogmus CB, Nicolakis J (Aug 2002). Wiener klinische Wochenschrift 114 (15–16): 21–22. PMID 12602111. 
  11. ^ Robinson AJ, Snyder-Mackler, L. Clinical electrophysiology: electrotherapy and electrophysiologic testing 3rd ed. Baltimore: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins, 2008;151-196, 198-237, 239-274
  12. ^ Alon G et al. Electrotherapeutic Terminology in Physical Therapy; Section on Clinical Electrophysiology. Alexandria, VA: American Physical Therapy Association, 2005
  13. ^ Aziz Z, Flemming K (2012). "Electromagnetic therapy for treating pressure ulcers". Cochrane Database Syst Rev (12): CD002930. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002930.pub5. PMID 23235593. 
  14. ^ Aziz Z, Cullum N, Flemming K (2013). "Electromagnetic therapy for treating venous leg ulcers". Cochrane Database Syst Rev (2): CD002933. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD002933.pub5. PMID 23450536. 

Further reading[edit]

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