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How can an electrode suit treat nerve disorders?


Using electrodes for physiotherapy isn't new, but fresh approaches to the use of the technology are being developed, and could enable patients to administer their own treatments at home.
Using electrodes for physiotherapy isn't new, but fresh approaches to the use of the technology are being developed, and could enable patients to administer their own treatments at home.
ŠiStockphoto/Thinkstock

More than 5 million Americans suffer traumatic brain injury and its side effects every year -- side effects that often include neuromuscular problems. More than 760,000 additional Americans are affected by a neuromuscular condition caused by stroke or spinal cord injury every year. And when you add in the number of people living with cerebral palsy (500,000) and Parkinson's disease (about 1 million) the numbers just keep climbing -- it's estimated that movement disorders affect about one out of seven Americans [source: Alfred Mann Foundation, Parkinson's Disease Foundation].

Movement disorders are characterized by a problem with -- you guessed it -- movement. These conditions impair voluntary and involuntary muscle movements, which translates into problems with things you may take for granted, such as walking and speech. In addition, they may also cause pain, jerky movements and abnormal postures -- and conditions that impair people in this way can make living our daily lives difficult.

Treatments often include physical, occupational and other rehabilitative therapies, pharmacotherapy including immunosuppressive drugs, chemodenervation (Botox) and neurolysis (phenol), and sometimes neurosurgery and other therapeutic options. Sometimes patients are treated with electrical stimulation therapy techniques.

Electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), also known as neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), is a therapy used to stop muscle atrophy, strengthen weakened muscles and increase muscle movement in patients living with neuromuscular conditions such as Parkinson's disease, muscular dystrophy, cerebral palsy and traumatic brain injury. It has also shown potential in treating tremors, akinesia, rigidity, spasticity and dyskinesia, and is now being used experimentally as a treatment for additional conditions such as epilepsy and obsessive-compuslive disorder.

EMS works because your body is electric -- this type of electrical pulse stands in for how the body's central nervous system would act if it were properly functioning.

Cells in your body called neurons carry an electric potential of about 40 to 60 millivolts (one thousandth of a volt) when they're resting. Get them excited, and they fire quick electrical impulses up to 100 millivolts. Each impulse only lasts about 1 millisecond, and each impulse has the potential to travel as far as 100 meters through the body's network of neurons [source: Cheshire Engineering Corporation]. Because your body is an imperfect machine, sometimes those neurons misfire. When their timing isn't in perfect synchronization (with other neurons as well as with other bodily systems) it impacts how the body functions, from the production and triggering of hormones to how a muscle contracts.

This is where EMS comes in -- EMS involves placing electrodes on specific areas of the body through which pulses of low-frequency electricity are delivered to stimulate muscle tissue -- this causes the targeted muscle to contract. Until recently, these electrodes tied you down, literally. Swedish chiropractor Fredrik Lundqvist had an idea to combine EMS with clothing, allowing patients a new level of mobility: an electrode suit now known as the Elektrodress.


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