Electrotherapy Modalities: why they are being used less as a form of treatment

man_with_electrodes_1Most of us have all been there at some point. We head to our physio complaining of back/shoulder/knee pain etc – and we want to be out of pain asap! After an assessment your physio decides to use a piece of electrotherapy equipment which buzzes on top of your site of pain and may/may not have made your pain better? Does that sound familiar?

But did it really correct anything? Did it change your poor posture? Did it loosen those stiff hips or strengthen your weak foot? The quick answer is no, and that’s why these machines have rightfully (and thankfully) become less and less used within the physiotherapy community.

The main type of electrotherapy used in physiotherapy is the ‘Interferential Machine’ so let’s talk about this one today. Its goal, very similar to the portable TENS machine, is to block the neurotransmission of the pain signal. When combined with heat or ice, it can make the patient more comfortable for the short time that it is on the site of pain. So, why is it becoming less popular amongst physios? Listed below are some of our top reasons:

1.       It’s a passive treatment. Passive treatment definitely has its place initially. As manual therapists our main tools are our hands and we have learnt to feel and heal our way through a host of injuries. However passive treatment can become a problem when a patient becomes solely reliant on us, rather than understanding how they can help themselves and relieve their pain via self-management and awareness.

2.       It doesn’t teach you corrective behaviour. Your daily behaviour, the postures you adopt, the way you lift/carry/walk/run will all affect your body. As physiotherapists our goal is to teach you how to self-monitor yourself, learn to lift your kids safer, learn a better running technique, change your desk ergonomics – so that these daily aches/pains and injuries can be avoided, not just passively managed. At the end of the day, lying with an interferential machine on your back is NOT going to teach you how to change your sitting posture so that at the end of the working day you are no longer in 8/10 pain.

3.       It doesn’t strengthen or stretch tissue. The goal of the Interferential machine is to temporarily block the pain signal. It does not help us to strengthen the muscle that may be weak or stretch/loosen tight joints. The only way to do that is with exercise prescription and understanding your injury and how to prevent it in the future.

Interferential has lost its place in the treatment world – the time spent under this machine is better spent working on your exercise program or working interactively with your physio to correct postures and behaviours. Above all, it is movement that will fix most musculoskeletal injuries, not a passive treatment. The more educated we can become and the more ownership we take over our recovery will mean happier and healthier body’s!

So moral of the story here – if you happen to find yourself at a practice which uses these machines on you ALL the time – re-think your therapy and question whether you are getting the most out of your treatment.

Sara, Physiotherapist