Electrotherapy : Sports Injury Treatment

Electrotherapy is an ever controversial form of treatment. Scientists are still divided on its effectiveness, but despite this it remains a popular option in sports medicine. Electrotherapy comes in many forms, but in sport the three most common ones are ultrasound, interferential therapy and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).


Ultrasound is the most commonly used form of electrotherapy in sports (though strictly speaking it does not actually use electrical energy). Ultrasound is a form of mechanical or sound energy, but at very high frequencies beyond humans’ hearing capabilities. The ultrasound wave is applied to the injured part of the body, which absorbs the energy and leads to pain relief, lessening stiffness in the joints and increasing blood flow. It is suggested that ultrasound can increase the rate of healing and improve the quality of the repair. It is most successful on more absorbent tissues, and in sport it is commonly used to treat a wide range of injuries from arthritis to tennis elbow. It is popular because of its relative safety.

Interferential Therapy

Interferential therapy (IFT) uses low frequency electrical stimulation of the nerves to create a physiological reaction. Low frequency electro treatments are commonly associated with pain but IFT aims to avoid the unpleasant side effects and the pain. The electric frequency is rhythmically increased and decreased in amplitude and reacts with the muscles and tissues to produce increased mobility and pain relief. It is most effective when used in conjunction with ultrasound, and is used to relieve aches, pains and joint stiffness, to reduce swelling, increase blood flow and speed up recovery time.


The effectiveness of TENS has yet to be scientifically proved, and since the treatment can be quite painful it is not so widely used as the other two. TENS can be used either at high or low frequencies and excite the nerves to produce pain relief. The treatment focuses particularly on the central nervous system, so is less localised to the injured area. It is particularly used for back and neck pain, injuries of the soft and deep tissues and arthritic conditions.

Other Forms of Electrotherapy

There are other forms of electrotherapy that can be used for sports injuries. These include pulsed shortwave therapy and laser therapy. Pulsed shortwave therapy is a non-thermal method of healing (meaning it does not produce an increased temperature unlike other treatments). Laser therapy can be used to repair damaged tissues and can be very accurate, but it is also a very intense form of treatment.

Who is Electrotherapy Suitable for?

Electrotherapy is not recommended for pregnant women, children, people with pacemakers and those suffering from cancer. In some cases electrotherapy may still be used on people in these categories, but it should be done with caution as the research is still not conclusive on potential negative effects.

Where is Electrotherapy Available?

Some electrotherapy treatments are available on the NHS, while others are only available privately. Many physiotherapists offer one or more forms of electrotherapy.

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