Electrical stimulation in stroke rehabilitation: time to think again?

March 1, 2018

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has been around for a while. You’ve probably seen it on the home shopping networks or online. They are the battery-operated devices with the sticky pads that give ‘electric shocks’ to stimulate your muscles. Initially developed for pain relief, you might have dismissed TENS as little more than a passing trend. But is it time to take another look at the technology?

According to researchers at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, the answer is an emphatic ‘yes’! Their research indicates that TENS is effective in improving balance, walking, strength, and spasticity (contracted, tight muscles).  TENS is especially useful when applied at the early stages of post-stroke recovery. So unlike many passing trends, it seems that TENS might be a worthwhile investment.

The value of TENS

The researchers came out in support of TENS following a review of 11 clinical trials with a total of more than 400 participants.  Participants were 10 days to 5.3 years after the occurrence of a stroke. Researchers found that TENS improved walking capacity when compared to no-treatment controls, and reduced spasticity. Whether the approach is of any additional value in the longer term (studies in their review lasted no more than 12 weeks) or in sufferers of chronic stroke-related conditions, the team is confident of one thing. TENS is of greater higher value when used alongside more traditional approaches to recovery in both the acute and subacute stages of stroke.

These devices are simple to use (the pads are easy to apply, the units aren’t dangerous). And they are easy to find (devices online cost less than $25). You should, however, talk with your physiotherapist about the possible benefits of TENS before incorporating it into your recovery program. The researchers recommend sessions lasting 60 minutes, but it is important that you select the program and intensity best-suited to your needs, to achieve greater improvement in your walking capacity and the spasticity that might follow a stroke.


Lead author of this study is Dr. Kwong from the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Kowloon, Hong Kong.

What you can do with this information

Editorial note:

TENS can help in the early stages after stroke. After talking to your therapist, you can buy an operate a personal device on your own. Add an extra training session at home in addition to your standard physical therapy.

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