Electrical Stimulation For Low Back Pain

Therapist Placing Electrodes On Woman's Back

Treatment Ratings


RISK: 5/5

There are a number of contraindications for TENS or IF, including:
  • DVT or thrombophlebitis
  • Hemorrhagic conditions
  • Pregnancy
  • Eyes, anterior neck, carotid sinus, head, reproductive organs
  • Impaired cognition or communication
  • Regenerating nerves
  • Cardiac failure (local)
  • Damaged or at-risk skin (local)
  • Infection or tuberculosis (local)
  • Malignancy (local)
  • Recently radiated tissue (local)
  • Electronic device (local)
  • Impaired sensation (local)

Other risks of both therapies include skin reactions or sensitivity, especially to the electrodes used.If the current is turned up too high, it can be painful. Overall, TENS and IF are considered generally safe.



Studies of TENS have shown conflicting results, but some reviews of the studies have demonstrated effectiveness for some patients. There have been problems with how the studies have been done, which contributes to e confusion. Many guidelines indicate a trial of TENS is appropriate, and it should be used with other active treatments, such as exercise.

Similarly, studies on Interferential Therapy also suffer from flaws in the design of the study. There are a variety of ways to deliver IF, but the studies don’t really compare these. Most major guidelines indicate IF can be tried in conjunction with other treatments, but not by itself alone.

Zambito A, Bianchini D, Gatti D, Rossini M, Adami S, Viapiana O. Interferential and horizontal therapies in chronic low back pain due to multiple vertebral fractures: a randomized, double blind, clinical study. Osteoporos Int. 2007 Nov;18(11):1541-5. Epub 2007 Jul 4.



While electrical stimulation is frequently provided by medical providers, all of these therapies are available for home use, and can be purchased by the general public.


COST: 4/5

TENS units are available online for as little as $30, and interferntial and muscle stimulation units are available for between $125 and $600. Durable medical equipment companies will often charge insurance carries several thousand dollars. In general, these units would be considered very affordable.


USEFULNESS (overall rating): 5/5

TENS, Interferential and muscle stimulation units don’t work for everyone, but can be very useful for those who do benefit. They are a good alternative for those who cannot or choose not to use anti-inflammatory drugs, including patients with stomach issues, kidney or liver disease or heart disease. They are also an option for recovering substance abusers who cannot take pain medication.



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