The term arthritis can refer to rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the body's immune system attacks the tissues in the joints as foreign or invasive. It can affect any joint. Osteoarthritis occurs with deterioration of load-bearing joints, either from age, physical stress such as extreme athletics or being overweight. The symptoms of both kinds of arthritis are pain, inflammation, swelling and limited movement. Physicians use many treatments for both kinds of arthritis, including electrical current.
Medical Treatment of RA
Physicians and veterinarians treat both kinds of arthritis, to relieve symptoms, improve mobility and to intervene in the disease process. The treatment includes: physical/occupational therapy; heat; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen); steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, both injected into the joint and given orally; other analgesics; disease modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) for RA only (these are drugs that have shown benefit in slowing the autoimmune process of RA); ultrasound shock waves; and bioelectric therapy.
Electricity, but Not Electric Shock
Controlled amounts of electrical current can relieve symptoms in the treatment of arthritis. The term "electric shock" invokes images of exposure to strong current, as one might feel when touching a live wire connected to household electricity. No one uses electric shock of that kind to treat arthritis.
Trans-electrical Nerve Stimulation
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses the electrical current to block pain sensations from the affected joints to the brain. The process has few side effects or discomfort and offers patients relief of pain. According to a medical literature review published in the British Journal of Community Nursing in 2007, TENS benefits some patients and does no harm, but may not offer cost advantages over conventional therapy.
Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation
Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) uses electrical current to stimulate muscular activity at the affected joint. Arthritis often limits movement, putting the muscles at risk of atrophy. NMES causes the muscles to contract without stressing the painful joint.
A study published in the Journal of Rheumatology in 2003 found that patients with osteoarthritis of the knee could increase the strength of their leg muscles with NMES. In people with rheumatoid arthritis, NMES increased lean muscle mass, muscle strength and physical function, according to data published in Physical Therapy in August 2007.
Safety and Side Effects
In both TENS and NEMS, a health professional places small pads on the skin. The pads have wires connecting them to the computer controlling the strength of the electrical current. Patients will feel a mild, tingling sensation under the pads. Few people experience side effects, but some might notice skin irritation or redness at the site of the pads.