Electrical stimulation (e-stim) therapy uses small electrical impulses to help relax muscles and promote healing. Research shows that e-stim may not help with RA, but there‘s no harm in trying.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune condition that causes pain and inflammation in your joints.

Doctor-prescribed medications and therapies can help managed symptoms of RA. Yet there is no complete cure, and chronic discomfort may leave many people looking for additional treatments to try in addition to their ongoing medical care.

This article provides an overview of e-stim therapy and how it might help you manage your RA symptoms.

E-stim is a therapy that uses small electrical impulses to trigger a muscle contraction. These electrical impulses are not painful. They mimic the natural stimulation that your neurons send to create similar muscle contractions throughout your body.

You have a few choices for e-stim delivery systems, and you can use many of these therapies at home.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), for example, is a common type of e-stim therapy you can use at home.

With TENS, you place sticky pads on your skin over areas of muscle pain or tightness. A small impulse is then delivered through the pads at a frequency and strength you can set, based on your needs and preferences.

Learn more about how to use e-stim therapy to manage different types of pain.

The goal of e-stimulation therapies is to bring about a muscle contraction that is followed by a natural relaxation. The electrical impulses also increase blood flow to the stimulated area, which is believed to help encourage faster healing and more pain relief.

Inflammation and swelling from RA can cause chronic pain in your joints and throughout your body. You may find this difficult to manage with conventional treatments and medications. Achieving ongoing symptom management or remission usually comes only after multiple intensive treatments.

People with RA may look to complementary and alternative therapies to supplement their medical treatments, but there’s not a lot of evidence backing the use of e-stim therapies for RA.

A 2021 study revealed that people who used e-stim treatments for acute and chronic pain felt some improvement after using devices like TENS, but larger trials of these devices showed insignificant or questionable improvements in both pain management and physical function.

E-stim therapies like TENS aren’t viewed as having any major negative effects, even if their benefit is questioned. However, in a 2022 report on complementary therapies for RA, the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) revealed that healthcare professionals should caution people with RA against the use of e-stim.

According to the ACR guideline, though there doesn’t seem to be much harm in the use of e-stim therapies for RA, there’s also little to no evidence of any benefit. In its report, the ACR concluded that these treatments are likely not worthwhile for people with RA due to the cost and hassle of using them.

Other researchers have come up with similar results, even questioning the true benefit of e-stim therapies for chronic pain relief.

Even though there are questions about the true value of e-stim in reducing acute or chronic pain in people with conditions like RA, it also seems that there is little harm in trying these treatments if you want to.

Who should not try e-stim for RA?

There are some specific groups of people who should not use electrical stimulation therapy, including people who:

  • are pregnant
  • have epilepsy
  • have internally implanted medical devices like pacemakers
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The steps for e-stim therapy might vary a bit based on the specific type of therapy and device you are using. Typically, some sort of electrode, pad, or application is attached to the skin over the area you are trying to treat.

Devices are designed to deliver different strengths of electrical impulses over a period of time, and different devices may have particular patterns and durations of therapy programmed into them.

For most people, e-stim therapy is not painful, and the majority of users report a light tapping or touching sensation during therapy. With stronger stimulation, feelings of tingling or a pins and needles sensation may also sometimes be reported.

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) therapy is a little bit different from e-stim. That’s because EMS machines are designed to produce muscle contractions that build muscle size or function, not relax them.

EMS therapy is typically used by athletes as a way to increase strength and performance. However, EMS has also been investigated as a way to improve muscle strength and physical functioning in people with RA.

Several studies have looked into the full effect that EMS therapy can provide to people with RA. One study from 2019 found that frequent use of EMS in higher doses did result in some increase in muscle strength and quality in people with RA, but the results might not be the same for everyone who tries it.

Electrical stimulation therapy (e-stim) uses small currents of electricity to force a muscle contraction. The current is delivered through pads or electrodes, so many of these devices can be used at home.

E-stim is often used to target pain and promote muscle recovery, but its benefit to people with RA is questionable.

There are no major side effects to using these kinds of treatments, but you should still check with your doctor before using them. People who are pregnant, have epilepsy, or have a pacemaker installed should not use e-stim therapy.

Be sure to also consider other RA therapies and medications your doctor might recommend that may improve your symptoms more significantly and allow you to achieve remission.