TENS and Electrothermal Therapy for Pain Management

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on March 15, 2020

One of the most common forms of electrical stimulation used for pain management is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy, which provides short-term pain relief. Electrical nerve stimulation and electrothermal therapy are used to relieve pain associated with various conditions, including back pain. Intradiscal electrothermal therapy (IDET) is a treatment option for people with low back pain resulting from intervertebral disc problems.

TENS Therapy for Pain Management

In TENS therapy for pain management, a small, battery-operated device delivers low-voltage electrical current through the skin via electrodes placed near the source of pain. The electricity from the electrodes stimulates nerves in the affected area and sends signals to the brain that "scramble" normal pain perception. TENS is not painful and may be effective therapy to mask pain such as diabetic neuropathy. However, TENS for chronic low back pain is not effective and cannot be recommended, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) now says.

Intradiscal Electrothermal Therapy (IDET)

Intervertebral discs act as cushions between the vertebrae. Sometimes the discs can become damaged and cause pain. IDET uses heat to modify the nerve fibers of a spinal disc and to destroy pain receptors in the area. In this procedure, a wire called an electrothermal catheter is placed through an incision in the disc. An electrical current passes through the wire, heating a small outer portion of the disc to a temperature of 90 degrees Celsius. IDET is performed as an outpatient procedure while the patient is awake and under a local anesthesia.

Early studies indicated that some patients may have continued pain relief for up to six months or longer. The long-term effects of this procedure on the disc, however, have not been determined.More studies are needed to compare this treatment to standard therapies and surgery as well as placebo.

Radiofrequency Discal Nucleoplasty

Radiofrequency discal nucleoplasty is a newer procedure which utilizes a radio frequency probe instead of heating wire to disintegrate a small portion of the central disc material. The result of this intervention is partial decompression of the disc, which may help relieve pain caused by bulging discs pressing on nearby spinal nerve roots.