Neuromuscular electrostimulation techniques: historical aspects and current possibilities in treatment of pain and muscle waisting

Clin Nephrol. 2013 Jan:79 Suppl 1:S12-23.


Application of electricity for pain treatment dates back to thousands of years BC. The Ancient Egyptians and later the Greeks and Romans recognized that electrical fishes are capable of generating electric shocks for relief of pain. In the 18th and 19th centuries these natural producers of electricity were replaced by man-made electrical devices. This happened in following phases. The first was the application of static electrical currents (called Franklinism), which was produced by a friction generator. Christian Kratzenstein was the first to apply it medically, followed shortly by Benjamin Franklin. The second phase was Galvanism. This method applied a direct electrical current to the skin by chemical means, applied a direct and pulsed electrical current to the skin. In the third phase the electrical current was induced intermittently and in alternate directions (called Faradism). The fourth stage was the use of high frequency currents (called d'Arsonvalisation). The 19th century was the "golden age" of electrotherapy. It was used for countless dental, neurological, psychiatric and gynecological disturbances. However, at beginning of the 20th century electrotherapy fell from grace. It was dismissed as lacking a scientific basis and being used also by quacks and charlatans for unserious aims. Furthermore, the development of effective analgesic drugs decreased the interest in electricity. In the second half of the 20th century electrotherapy underwent a revival. Based on animal experiments and clinical investigations, its neurophysiological mechanisms were elucidated in more details. The pain relieving action of electricity was explained in particular by two main mechanisms: first, segmental inhibition of pain signals to the brain in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord and second, activation of the descending inhibitory pathway with enhanced release of endogenous opioids and other neurochemical compounds (serotonin, noradrenaline, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), acetylcholine and adenosine). The modern electrotherapy of neuromusculo- skeletal pain is based in particular on the following types: transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS or electro-acupuncture) and spinal cord stimulation (SCS). In mild to moderate pain, TENS and PENS are effective methods, whereas SCS is very useful for therapy of refractory neuropathic or ischemic pain. In 2005, high tone external muscle stimulation (HTEMS) was introduced. In diabetic peripheral neuropathy, its analgesic action was more pronounced than TENS application. HTEMS appeared also to have value in the therapy of symptomatic peripheral neuropathy in end-stage renal disease (ESRD). Besides its pain-relieving effect, electrical stimulation is of major importance for prevention or treatment of muscle dysfunction and sarcopenia. In controlled clinical studies electrical myostimulation (EMS) has been shown to be effective against the sarcopenia of patients with chronic congestive heart disease, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and ESRD.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Electric Stimulation Therapy / history*
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, 21st Century
  • History, Ancient
  • Humans
  • Muscle Weakness / history*
  • Muscle Weakness / therapy
  • Pain Management / history*
  • Torpedo*
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation / history*