More than 100 years ago, scientists already knew the benefits of stimulating nerves to help you recover function. Things as simple as massage and vibration treatments can do wonders for your recovery. Though we understand its benefits, we still don’t use this kind of therapy routinely in stroke rehab. Though we know it works, we haven’t quite tapped into its full potential.
There is a treatment known as TENS that can stimulate nerves and help with rehab. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and involves a small device that delivers electricity to your nerves through the skin. It’s not invasive and doesn’t hurt at all. Recently, Florida researchers wanted to revisit this therapy and its benefit for stroke patients. They looked at the existing studies that use electrical stimulation for stroke rehab.
The scientific evidence for TENS
Researchers found 11 relevant studies that looked at the effects of electrical nerve stimulation used with standard rehab techniques. Even without actively using the muscle, the results showed that it worked. Electrical stimulation used during your rehab, or in conjunction with rehab, produced results. Study participants often had one-sided weakness and benefited from stimulating that side to be stronger. Strengthening the weak side helps achieve better overall control of your body and more balanced movements when walking.
It seems to work with or without exercise
Two studies, in particular, showed that electrically stimulating nerves helps improve your ability to lift your foot with each step. Falls after a stroke are dangerous and can cause fracture or worse. By helping you lift up your foot with each step you have a lower chance of tripping and falling. The study found that stimulation therapy was better at improving this than placebo in both acute and chronic stroke patients. On top of the electrical therapy, patients were also exercising 4-6 hours every week for 3-4 weeks.
Two studies also demonstrated better walking for patients receiving this treatment. The ‘timed up and go’ test is an important clinical test used to check your walking and stability. Patients who used electrical nerve stimulation with both passive and active exercise had better test results than patients who only had the placebo. In the chronic stage of a stroke, specifically, studies found that electrical nerve stimulation helped patients walk faster and better. The average time for the ‘timed up and go’ went from 25 to 19 seconds.
Is TENS for you?
The science is supportive. It looks like using electrical signals to stimulate your nerves can help you recover after a stroke. The great advantage to this therapy is not only the fact that it’s not invasive but also it’s easy to teach to health care providers. Overall, it’s a wonderful and inexpensive way to improve your post-stroke life, and there is little risk. If you’re interested in finding out more about this therapy option, talk to your doctor or therapist about its availability to you!
The lead author of this study was Sharareh Sharififar, the Physiotherapy Department, University of Florida, in Gainesville, Florida.