There’s a lot to know about electrical stimulation therapy including the types available, the benefits, and what conditions it may help. Here’s what you need to know so you can talk with your doctor to see if electrical stimulation therapy might be right for your dog.
What is Electrical Stimulation Therapy?
Electrical stimulation therapy, also known as electrotherapy or E-stim, is using low-to-mid levels of electrical current in the body. It has been used in humans successfully for years. E-stim was first introduced in racehorses, then in companion animals like dogs.
The primary goals of E-stim are to strengthen muscles that have begun to atrophy, relieve pain (often following surgery or an injury), reduce stiffness and inflammation, and optimize muscle range and motion. It’s commonly used with sporting dogs (who do agility and the like) though it can be used for most dogs. Though this type of therapy isn’t often used in general veterinary practice, it’s frequently used in rehabilitation.
There are two types of electrical stimulation therapies used for dogs: NMES and TENS. Both are non-invasive, non-painful, and safe therapeutic techniques that can be used in conjunction with canine physical rehabilitation techniques like cold laser therapy, heat therapy, therapeutic exercises, and others.
Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) stimulates muscle contraction using electrical impulses. It stimulates motor nerves in the central nervous system, often the spine. NMES helps to build muscles and has been found to be very effective in rehabilitation.
NMES uses higher frequencies than TENS to strengthen muscles, causing them to contract. It’s often used in patients who are too weak to move certain muscles or muscle groups. This weakness could be due to atrophy from an injury or from a neurological issue. NMES can also be used for preventive therapy for partially or totally immobilized patients.
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It’s a type of NMES that involves the use of electrical stimulation to primarily provide pain relief. It is used in lower frequencies and targets sensory nerves to override pain impulses.
To use TENS, electrode pads are placed against the animal’s skin or coat with a conductivity gel. When turned on, the unit delivers a low-level electrical current to the area touching the electrodes. The effect of TENS is short-lived, though, and may only last around an hour or so. It is sometimes used immediately post-operative to help manage pain and during therapy to help work through a potentially painful treatment.
Benefits of Electrical Stimulation Therapy
Electrotherapy, including both NMES and TENS, provides a number of health benefits for dogs since it can be used on both the sensory and motor nerves. It strengthens muscles and can re-educate them, reversing muscle atrophy. Electrotherapy can also provide pain control or relief, a reduction of inflammation, and promote wound healing.
Electrical stimulation therapy causes change at the cellular level and at the tissue level. NMES has been found to rehabilitate muscles, prevent muscle atrophy, and maintain or increase joint mobility. TENS is generally used for pain management. Both also help with lymphatic drainage and overall circulation, providing additional benefits.
The feeling of e-stim is similar to a tingling sensation and you can ask to try it out to see what it’s like before it’s used on your dog. Most dogs enjoy it once they are used to it and the sessions are comfortable and relaxing. Your dog won’t need recovery time from an electrical stimulation therapy session.
The frequency and duration of electrical stimulation therapy sessions will depend on a number of factors including the type of injury or surgery, the extent of neurological or muscular damage, and your dog’s medical history. Sessions often last between 10 and 20 minutes, and they may be recommended multiple times a week during an acute period (like immediately following an injury or surgery).
Because we don’t have the ability to ask about the sensation during treatment, vets start off low and slowly increase the frequency. The electrical current and duration is adjusted based on the dog’s size, weight, and response to the sensation.
Should Your Dog Try E-Stim Therapy?
Talk with your vet or your rehab vet to see if electrical stimulation therapy may be helpful for your dog. It’s a safe and effective treatment and one of the great tools in every rehab vet’s arsenal to help your dog live a better, happier, and healthier life.
A word of caution: there are home electrical stimulation therapy kits available. Though you may be able to provide e-stim treatments at home, it’s important to only do so under a vet’s care and instruction to make sure you don’t worsen the issue.