Rick Robinson

Oct 11th 2021

Chronic Pain Treatment May Get a Jolt From Electric Therapy


The use of electric therapy for chronic pain treatment is an old idea, but it’s getting new attention as researchers and doctors look for alternative ways to alleviate severe, long-lasting pain.

In ancient times, physicians discovered that the sting of electric fish could sometimes leave patients feeling better by reducing their chronic pain, according to Oxford Academic. By the 19th century, pioneering electrical researchers found that the nerves of living tissue responded to electric stimulation. Electrical treatment of pain fell out of favor as it became associated with crank theories and dubious gadgets, but by the 1970s, researchers were giving electric therapy (also called electrotherapy) a second look.

Today, amid the risks of opioid use in pain treatment and the limitations of pharmaceutical alternatives, the use of electric treatment for chronic pain therapy is seeing a new surge of interest and development.

Electric Fish and Frankenstein’s Monster

According to Oxford Academic, in the early days of the Roman empire, physician Scribonius Largus noted that chronic pain in some patients could be alleviated by the electric shock produced by a torpedo fish. Scattered reports of the use of eels and other electric fish for pain treatment continued into American colonial times. Meanwhile, experimenters such as Benjamin Franklin found that nerves responded to electric impulses by contracting. Clearly, electricity played a role in life processes.

The potential role of electricity in medicine would enter popular culture a few decades later in a big way — but not as a medical miracle. As a separate report from Oxford Academic recounts, Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” published in 1814, gave bio-electricity an unforgettable starring role in her new, scientific twist on the horror story.

Electric Snake Oil?

As electrical technology developed, new devices became available. And, in spite of Frankenstein, enthusiasm was widespread. As Oxford Academic notes, a Boston newspaper reported that “cases of rheumatism, disease of the liver, stomach and kidneys, lung complaints, paralysis, lost vitality, nervous disability, female complaints” were cured by one such “electrifier.”

But electric therapy for chronic pain treatment gradually slipped into the ranks of medically dubious treatments. The late 19th and early 20th century marked the golden age of snake oil, patent medicines and other medical quackery, and electrical gadgets were dismissed as belonging to the same class.

The Electric Pain Treatment Revival

By the 1960s and 1970s, serious medical researchers were again looking at electricity as a means of chronic pain treatment, as Oxford Academic points out, and they were getting effective results in pain reduction. These treatments remained quasi-experimental due to technical limitations in the devices and the limited number of doctors trained with the technology.

However, in the 1980s, effective transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation devices — often called TENS devices — became commercially available. Awareness and use of electric therapy for pain began to grow. However, pharmaceutical methods of pain treatment were still more widely available and regarded as simpler and less costly.

In recent years, attention is turning again to the potential for electric pain treatment. As Time magazine reports, the pharmaceutical industry has hit something of a wall in developing new drugs for pain treatment. At the same time, as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains, misuse of opioids has reached epidemic levels, pushing the pain treatment community to look for alternatives to these powerful but extremely dangerous drugs.

Looking Forward

Meanwhile, the sophistication and capability of TENS devices continue to grow. Medical News Today reports that, though clinical research into electrical chronic pain treatment remains limited, a growing number of doctors and patients are finding electricity to be an effective means of alleviating pain from a wide variety of causes. Some of the conditions that TENS devices have shown effectiveness in treating include fibromyalgia, arthritis and spinal cord injury.

Other forms of electrical stimulation may prove useful in treating these and other serious conditions. In fact, Nature reports that three paralyzed people were able to regain some control of their leg muscles through the use of electric therapy.

More research surely needs to be done into the effectiveness and applications for electricity-based treatments — and no doubt, this form of therapy may need some image rehabilitation. But it may return the favor by giving science and medicine a wider range of ways to rehabilitate us.

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