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Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation

by Jane Hodgson 3 February 2010


Neuromuscular electric stimualation is the principle of using a small electrical current to make a muscle contract. Repeated contraction of a muscle maintains or increases muscle strength.

What is Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation?

Also known as Trophic Electrical Stimulation, NES provides electrical stimulation to cause a muscle to contract. This is the job that a nerve would normally do. If for any reason a nerve is not working normally, for instance due to injury or viral infection NES can be used to stimulate the muscle directly, promoting blood supply and nutrition to the muscle and preventing atrophy (wasting of the muscle)

What Injuries can Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation Treat?

Any injury where the muscle is having difficulty contracting because of pain, or damage to a peripheral nerve (a peripheral nerve is one which is outside of the brain and spinal cord) may benefit from NES.

In injuries where the nerve has been damaged either by disease or by trauma the muscle will start to waste away very quickly. Using electrical stimulation can help to keep the muscle strong whilst the nerve recovers.

Examples of situations where NES can be helpful include:

  • Bells palsy- affects the nerves and muscles of the face causing one side of the face to droop.
  • Brachial plexus injury (the bundle of nerves that exit the neck before they separate into different nerves and go down the arm) The brachial plexus is usually damaged by strong traction to the arm or neck for instance in a car crash, with sporting trauma such as a rugby tackle, or after dislocation of the shoulder.
  • Multiple sclerosis- it is important to remember that NES won't repair damaged nerves, but it will help to maintain strength in muscles that don't have a good nerve supply, thus maintaining function.
  • Dropped foot- either due to nerve compression in the back, or damage to the nerve as it goes down the leg.
  • Knee arthritis - several studies have demonstrated the NES is as effective as quads exercises in improving strength and function and consequently decreasing pain in people with OA knee.
  • Continence problems
  • After surgery such as knee replacement when there is difficulty getting the muscles back up to strength



Electrical Stimulation - that Sounds Like Some Sort of Torture!

NES isn't painful at all. Small electrodes stick onto the skin over the muscle that needs to be stimulated, the sensation is a prickling sensation and possibly an involuntary tensing of the muscle.

Who Can't use Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation?

NES shouldn't be used by people who have a pacemaker implanted or ladies who are pregnant.

What are the Side Effects of Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation?

NES has little in the way of side effects. The main thing is to watch for any skin irritation under the electrodes and not to put the pads on in a exactly identical place on each occasion.

Is Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation a Quick fix?

Unfortunately not. Damaged nerves re grow at a rate of approximately 1mm per day. So where for instance the problem is a dropped foot due to compression of the nerve in the back the NES will be needed to stimulate the muscle for many weeks or months as the nerve regrows.

Where can I get a Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulator From?

NMS may be available for loan from some physio, orthopaedic, neuro or pain clinics. Some businesses offer a hire scheme and you can purchase them from retailers such as Physioroom

Disclaimer: The information on this page is written by a Chartered Physiotherapist to help you understand neuromuscular electrical stimulation. There are many possible causes for pain and nerve dysfunction and should you have any concerns you should always seek advice from a qualified health professional such as a Chartered Physiotherapist or your GP.

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About the author

Jane Hodgson - Chartered Physiotherapist Jane Hodgson Jane specialises in lower body injuries and has raced competitively in running, orienteering and adventure racing.

Did you know

An injured nerve regrows about 1mm per day

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