Electrical stimulation is an alternative therapy that has grown in popularity in recent years, specifically for bone healing. Devices such as bone stimulators, are often used for fractures that have failed to heal on their own. These types of fractures are called “nonunions.”

However, the debate is still out on whether bone stimulators are effective in treating these non-healing fractures.

Keep reading to learn more about bone stimulators, how they work, and what the research says about their effectiveness.

Bone stimulators are devices that act as a constant-current source. They typically consist of one anode, and one or more cathodes. The device is designed to generate an electric current, which is then meant to stimulate bone growth around its cathode or cathodes.

While it’s not completely understood how bone growth is stimulated, numerous experiments have suggested that these devices may help with the healing process. It’s also thought that these devices may be particularly effective for healing nonunions.

If you and your doctor decide on this nonsurgical treatment method, the stimulator will be placed on your skin close to where the nonunion is for anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours daily.

Your doctor may also recommend that you increase your daily intake of increase your daily intake of vitamin D, vitamin C, and calcium during the treatment process.This can encourage the bones to produce new, healthy cells to assist in the healing process.

Bone stimulators are often used to treat nonunions, which are broken bones that fail to heal. Nonunions may occur when there’s a lack of stability, blood flow, or both. Infections are also a cause of nonunions, particularly after surgery.

A bone stimulator delivers ultrasonic or pulsed electromagnetic waves to the nonunion site to stimulate healing.

The effectiveness of bone stimulators for bone fracture healing remains unclear. Researchers have had mixed results in determining whether these devices can affect the bone microstructure and help heal fractures.

A 2016 review of studies found that patients treated with electrical stimulation experienced less pain and lower rates of persistent nonunions.

However, a 2008 review of randomized controlled trials showed that pain was only reduced in 1 of the 4 trials studied, and the electrical stimulation had no significant effect on the bone healing.

Since electrical stimulation treatment has no side effects, researchers agree that more research on its use and effectiveness is warranted.

If a doctor has prescribed bone stimulation to help heal your bone fracture, check with your insurance provider to make sure it’s covered. If you do not have insurance, ask your doctor how much this treatment will cost.

In one 2018 study, patients who received bone stimulators after surgical procedures incurred higher costs, on average.

However, recent research showed that electrical bone growth stimulation is linked to lower healthcare costs when compared to low-intensity pulsed ultrasound stimulation or other non-stimulation treatment options.

To date, bone growth stimulators are not known to induce any adverse side effects in people. However, Podiatry Today cautions that bone stimulators should not be used in the following cases:

  • where the fracture gap is larger than 50 percent of the bone’s diameter
  • where pseudarthrosis (a false joint) has developed
  • when magnetic materials have been used to stabilize the bone
  • in pregnant women
  • in people with a growth disorder (skeletal immaturity)
  • in people with pacemakers or defibrillators (without first consulting a cardiologist)

In addition to a well-balanced diet full of protein, calcium, vitamins C and D, a doctor may suggest other methods to heal a nonunion, including a surgical bone graft and/or an internal or external fixation.

Surgical bone graft

If nonsurgical methods, such as bone stimulation, are not working, a bone graft might be necessary. Bone grafts provide fresh bone cells to the nonunion and encourage healing.

This procedure works by providing a scaffold on which a new bone may grow. During the surgery, a piece of bone from a different area of the body (or from a cadaver) is harvested, and then transplanted to the nonunion site. The rim of the pelvis is most often used for this process.

An internal or external fixation (described below) is usually part of a surgical bone graft procedure.

Surgical internal or external fixation

Internal or external fixations may also be used to heal a nonunion.

  • Internal fixation involves attaching metal plates and screws to the outside of the bone or placing a nail in the inside canal of the bone to stabilize the nonunion.
  • External fixation uses a rigid frame attached to the outside of the injured arm or leg, using wires or pins. The ultimate goal is to reduce instability.

External fixation tends to lack stability, and is typically used as a quick, interim way to stabilize a broken bone right after an injury until internal fixation can take place.

Each nonunion is different, meaning your doctor may explore a wide range of treatment options with you before you explore bone stimulation. The cost of bone stimulation devices can also vary, which might impact your decision to decide on this form of treatment.

Bone stimulators are an innovative, nonsurgical option, but researchers agree that that more research to determine its effectiveness. This may ultimately play a role in which treatment method you and your doctor decide to use.