Electrical Muscle Stimulation Treatments for Cerebral Palsy
By John Lehman
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) refers to a group of treatments that make use of electrical current to stimulate nerve endings, with the aim of reverting damage to the patient’s nervous system. Children suffering from cerebral palsy often have issues with movement and muscle spasticity, and EMS has proven to be effective at treating these issues, improving their overall quality of life. Combined with physical therapy, research has shown that EMS can increase walking speed, reduce muscle spasticity and improve overall motor function.
Types of Electrical Muscle Stimulation
EMS can be broken down into two main categories:
- Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES) – Also known as Therapeutic Electrical Stimulation (TES) or Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES). This form of the treatment is usually provided by a medical practitioner. Unlike Threshold Electrical Stimulation, NMES uses a higher voltage in shorter increments, with the aim of stimulating muscles to contract.
- Threshold Electrical Stimulation – This treatment differentiates itself from NMES, as it does not induce muscle contractions. Instead, a lower voltage is used over a long period of time. Patients can purchase devices for this treatment without a prescription and use it at home, typically while sleeping.
How EMS Works
Whether treating cerebral palsy or other motor dysfunctions, EMS follows the same procedure. First, electrodes are placed on the skin near muscles that have atrophy or are weaker than their counterparts. These electrodes are attached to a small electric generator, operated by patient (or in this case, the parent), or by a medical practitioner.
As mentioned before, Threshold Electrical Stimulation is usually performed at home, with the parent sending minor amounts of electric current through the electrodes over the course of several hours. With NMES, the patient is subjected to a slightly higher level of current, which coerces the muscle to contract. In either case, the electric current is mild and should not cause any pain or discomfort for your child.
How Effective is EMS?
Although doctors can usually agree on the benefits of EMS, many find that the therapy is unnecessary or unreliable since it does not produce permanent results. EMS typically needs to be conducted over a long period of time, as a single session of EMS will only temporarily improve motor function in the patient. Marked improvement is usually seen after the patient has undergone treatment between one to three months, with 2-hour sessions every day. Any prolonged breaks from the treatment may result in your child’s spasticity returning to an abnormal state. Because of this, many patients undergo the treatment throughout their life.
Although research is promising regarding the use of EMS for cerebral palsy patients, most research suggests that it is supplementary to standard treatments. Typically, EMS is combined with exercise or some other form of physical activity, depending on the child’s muscle condition. Some studies suggest that EMS alone can be used to treat smaller muscle groups, such as forearms or wrists. For larger muscle groups, such as leg muscles, EMS would be combined with another form of physical therapy.
Nevertheless, research is ongoing as to whether EMS can stand alone as an effective treatment for cerebral palsy and issues with motor skills. Ask your child’s doctor about EMS and whether it could help your child’s spasticity.