Is it really possible to stimulate a muscle using a machine?
Written by Jane Appleyard,
How does this type of treatment work and is it painful? Is electrical stimulation better than exercise and is it safe? This post answers these questions as well as giving you information about how to get the maximum benefit out of this type of treatment.
How does electrical stimulation work?
Before thinking about using an electrical stimulation unit to activate your pelvic floor muscles, it’s helpful to understand how this type of treatment works.
Let’s look at an activity such as picking up a child. If you want to perform any movement your muscles have to work in a coordinated way.
Your brain starts the process by sending electrical messages through to certain muscles along nerve fibres. These nerve fibres are in effect the body’s electric cables.
This small amount of electricity will cause the nerve to release a chemical at its end point where it touches the muscle fibres. This chemical makes the muscle fibres shorten and contract producing the movement we want to perform.
A fit healthy muscle will have thousands of nerve endings connecting to its deep layers and as these nerves repeatedly fire you can see how a muscle will tighten and then relax to your command. A muscle that is used often is well developed and has good tone. Over a period of time any muscle that is not used regularly will lose its tone and become ‘flatter and thinner’.
Pelvic floor muscles become weak for many different reasons. Lack of use causes them to become ‘flatter and thinner’ and less bulky. It’s hard for our brains to activate a muscle that hasn’t been used for a long time and this is where stimulation can be helpful.
Electrode sensors transmit an electric current when they are placed close against a muscle. This current then passes into the nerve fibres controlling that part of the muscle stimulating it to contract. So electrical stimulation can artificially activate a muscle. However it is a localised and superficial contraction of just a few muscle fibres. If your pelvic floor muscles are weak or you find it difficult to work out how to tighten your muscles correctly then stimulation can be really very useful.
Some women who can contract their muscles quite well but find it difficult to ‘hold on’ for more than a few seconds can also benefit from stimulation.
Is electrical stimulation better than exercises?
We know that pelvic floor muscles don’t work alone. They interact with some ‘core’ muscles in your body.
- Your deep lower stomach muscle (transversus abdominis)
- A deep back muscle (multifidus)
- Your ‘breathing band of muscle’ (diaphragm)
If your pelvic floor muscle is weak or has little endurance, the aim would be to use stimulation to ‘wake up’ your pelvic floor. As your ability to control your pelvic floor improves then you would move on to teach it how to become part of the team and work alongside your ‘core’ muscles.
So there is no evidence to show that stimulation alone is a more effective way of strengthening your muscles than exercise. In fact most physiotherapists recommend that stimulation is more effective if the woman ‘joins in’ with the movement. This makes sense because stimulation increases awareness of your pelvic floor area and allows you to focus on the sensation of tightening these muscles. By concentrating and joining in you are likely to encourage more muscle fibres to contract.
Is it safe and does it hurt? How would I use stimulation?
Women who require electrical stimulation to activate their pelvic floor muscles use small home units. There are many different types of units and vaginal sensors available.
The vaginal sensor- needs to lie as closely as possible to your pelvic floor muscle group.
The periform has been designed to provide good muscle contact.
It also has a space that accommodates any weakness of the front or back vaginal walls (prolapse)
Electrical stimulation should not be painful. Women often describe the sensation as a ‘tingling’ or ‘buzzing’ that is felt around the pelvic floor muscle area.
The metal part of the vaginal sensor needs to have a coat of lubricating gel such as KY or aquagel. This gives really good contact between the sensor plates and makes stimulation more comfortable.
As you increase the intensity you may feel your pelvic floor muscles tighten. By joining in with this muscle contraction you will:
– encourage activation of more muscle fibres
– produce more movement which then heightens your awareness of where these muscles are placed
Very weak muscles become tired very easily. Units should activate your muscles for a few seconds and then give you at least double rest time. If the stimulation lasts for 5 second then you need 10 seconds to allow the muscle to relax before the next stimulation phase.
Stimulation is part of a pelvic floor rehabilitation process. Any unit is best used under the guidance of a physiotherapist or health professional specialising in pelvic floor health.
Electrical stimulation units are safe but be aware that there are some health problems that would prevent you being able to use this type of treatment e.g. certain types of pacemakers. You should always read and follow the manufacturer’s guidelines.
You may like to view the video tutorial that gives further information about how to set up a stimulation unit.
It’s important to remember that stimulation is the start of the rehabilitation process. Once you’ve used the unit to activate your muscles you can start to practice tightening your pelvic floor at other times. If you want your muscles to be strong enough to protect you from leaking when you cough, sneeze or go for a run then you’ll need to progress your exercises. These muscles need to work in a coordinated way in different positions. Just using stimulation or doing pelvic floor exercises when lying down may not be enough.
Biofeedback can be very helpful in teaching you how to activate you pelvic floor. Watch out for other blogs in this series.The information on this website is written to give general information and does not in any way replace advice from your G.P. or qualified health care professional. If you have any specific concerns about your health you should seek an individual consultation with your G.P. for diagnosis and advice.