This is a brief review of the history of electrotherapy. Pain has been relieved by electricity since ancient times, at first by means of applying live electric fish to the tender part to cause numbness. But once frictional machines were found to produce electro-static electricity (Franklinism) in the mid 18th century the use of living organisms was discontinued. By the late 18th century Galvani had rediscovered the fact that animals developed electricity spontaneously. Volta discovered a chemical means of producing electricity from the first form of battery or voltaic pile without recourse to animal tissues or frictional machines whose efficiency varied with atmospheric conditions. This discovery led to the medical use of direct current (Galvanism). Its ability to cause necrosis by electrolytic means was employed in the destruction of tumours. Galvanism was also applied to needles, hence the first form of electroacupuncture pioneered by Berlioz and Sarlandiére. For the first time the combination of electrotherapy and oriental ideas about needling were brought together. Furthermore these early experimenters showed how stimulation of the nervous system brought profound relief from pain. In the early 19th century Faraday's work on the production of alternating currents and his understanding of electrolysis provided medicine with the escape that was required from the dangers of Galvanism. A variety of safer alternating and interrupted currents (Faradism) have been employed in electrotherapy ever since, particularly in the form of electroacupuncture, TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Stimulation) and Dorsal Column Stimulation. The popularity of electrotherapy fell during the early part of the 20th century as no one knew how its effects were obtained. However now we know how afferent nerve fibres respond to different frequencies and amplitudes, electrotherapy permits the modern practitioner to stimulate the nervous system in a number of different ways to induce the selective production of various monoamines, amino acids and peptides in the central nervous system. However more experiments are required to make electrotherapy realise its true potential in stimulating the patient's own pain relieving substances.
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