Electro-stimulation has been used for centuries, though not in the way we now know it. More than four millenniums ago in remote Egypt they were already using fish which generate electrical discharges for the treatment of various pathologies. We don’t advise the usage of electric eels, cat fish or torpedo fish in any type of treatment; today there are much better risk-free methods for applying electricity, in therapy as well as for the improvement of sports performance.
Even though using this type of electrical discharge from fish was practised by the Egyptians and Greeks, and subsequently by the Romans, it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that electro-stimulation was used effectively in the world of sport. In the 60’s, what came to be known as ‘Russian Currents’ began to be used. In that time, soviet athletes were subjected to almost tortuously intense electrical discharges, in order to compete and demonstrate the superiority of a society which soon after crumbled like the Berlin wall.
Long before that, in the 18th century, Luigi Galvani demonstrated that passing an electrical current through the spinal chord of a frog caused muscle contractions. This experiment was repeated in many universities during this period compounding the result that electricity had the capacity to generate muscle contractions, though it surely wasn’t known at the time why exactly the muscle contracted when an electrical current was passed through it. The dead muscle continued to conserve its contracting capacity when an electrical current was passed through it which posed the idea that, in some way, human beings generate this type of current to move and voluntarily act in the world. It was then tested whether the nervous system had an essential electrical component which the human being generated, which permitted them to control their motor actions, and that in corpses it was possible to obtain this movement with electricity.
Today for us, it is elementary to consider that it is the brain that generates the electrical impulse and that it is the nerves that transmit this impulse to the muscles, permitting us all types of movement. However, in the 18th century, the time of Galvani and Volta, in a time when instruments sensitive enough to measure the small amount of electrical energy circulating in the nervous tissue didn’t exist, they demonstrated, almost without means, not only that the energy did exist but that it was the same type of energy which produced lightening or which showed when a bar of amber was rubbed. It could be said that these geniuses provided an opportunity for the studies of branches of medicine such as neurophysiology and neurology.
On the shoulders of these giants others of equal genius rise. Out of these, one in particular stands out; Michael Faraday, who dedicated his efforts as a physicist and chemist to the study of electromagnetism. With the passing of time, it is easy to forget that, without him and the discovery of electromagnetic induction, we wouldn’t have the use of modern electric motors and the generators which provide us with light in our houses. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century a series of advancements were made which were to make the usage of electro-stimulation easier, as a therapeutic element, as effective treatment of multiple pathologies, and especially for the treatment of pain.
The various advances converge and, bit by bit, the possibility to use electro-therapy as a useful physical therapy emerges. As a result of studies, new forms of currents appear; interference, diadynamic and iontophoresis. Knowledge in neurophysiology is advancing by leaps and bounds; the ways in which muscles respond most efficiently to electrical impulses are being discovered; the importance of the frequencies for the stimulation of slow and fast muscle fibres are being discovered; information technology is advancing; and the control and adjustment of equipment is improving all the time. Where before one would need a twenty kilogram electro-stimulator for treatment, these days the same results can be obtained with portable and ultra-light equipment which fits into the palm of a hand. The golden age of the usage of electro-stimulation has arrived.