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What is Functional Electrical Stimulation?

By Sandra Koehler
Updated May 17, 2024
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Functional electrical stimulation, or FES, is a type of medical treatment that uses an electric current to stimulate muscles and nerves to rebuild function. Also known as neuromuscular functional stimulation or NMES, this form of therapy is often used with injuries and conditions that impair the body’s ability to move. Common health conditions that can benefit from functional electrical stimulation include strokes, spinal cord injuries, head injuries and any disorders affecting the nervous system.

When injury or health problems affect the nerves it may hinder the body’s ability to send out signals to allow normal, functional movement. Stimulating the musculature and nerves through a small electrical current through functional electrical stimulation can promote proper communication through the nerves to specific areas of the body. This in turn may enhance the capacity to move in a normal, practical and efficient manner to enhance overall mobility.

The basic components of a functional electrical stimulation unit include a power box with adjustable settings and electrodes on leads or wires. The electrodes are small pad that conducts the electric current. The electrodes are placed on the area of dysfunction with some gel to maximize conduction in specific positions to enhance nerve and muscle involvement.

When the functional electrical stimulation machine is turned on a mild to moderate zapping sensation occurs. This tingling sensation awakens the nerves and coaxes them to perform by enhancing the communication pathways. It may also improve the muscles ability to contract by forcing the fibers inside the muscle to tighten. When the intensity of the electrical current is increased, it can be possible for the affected area to actually move involuntarily through its range of motion until the current is stopped.

This ability to cause effective muscle contraction and movement of specific areas, functional electrical stimulation is also a useful tool in improving strength and performing activities. For example, if drop foot, the inability to lift the toes, is present, placement of an FES unit can stimulate ankle movement. When used with gait or walking training, it enhances the normal functional movement of the ankle until the muscles resume the ability to work independently.

In addition to improving mobility, functional electrical stimulation may also aid in relieving pain and tightness issues which prevent normal movement. When this form of electrotherapy is applied and the intensity is mild, it can be an effective tool to manage pain and discourage excessive muscle contractions. These types of muscle contractions are often called spasms and are a protective response of the body when faced with pain.

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Discussion Comments

By anon161759 — On Mar 21, 2011

Would FES be helpful in restoring an older woman's ability to wear high heels comfortably again?

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