Electrical stimulation therapy could relieve lower back pain in older adults


A study from the University of Florida (UF) has found that electrical stimulation treatment can help ease back pain in older adults. According to the researchers, this kind of therapy could potentially help older adults manage chronic pain as an alternative to prescription pain killers.

The study is the first to compare response to transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation therapy, or TENS, across age groups. For the study, dosage was individualised, with participants receiving amplitude that they found to be strong, but tolerable, and not painful. Results appear online ahead of print in The Journal of Pain.

“We found that TENS was adequate for relieving pain across the lifespan, independent of age. Everybody got better, both in clinical pain measures and experimental pain measures,” says Corey Simon, who conducted the study with support from a UF CTSI training award as part of his dissertation research for a doctoral degree in rehabilitation science at the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. “A key finding was there was an age difference in TENS dosage. Older adults needed a higher dosage to experience similar relief.”

The researchers studied 60 adults with chronic low back pain, including 20 young adults ages 18 to 39, 20 middle-aged adults ages 40 to 56 and 20 older adults ages 57 to 79, who received four sessions of TENS treatment over a three- to four-week period.

Across all age groups, participants in the UF study experienced a 48% improvement in resting pain. While wearing a TENS device, participants’ pain with movement was reduced by 34% and their physical function rating increased by 14%.

“This study is good news because TENS is a low-risk option,” says senior author Steven George, a UF associate professor of physical therapy and director of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program and the Brooks Rehabilitation research collaboration at the College of Public Health and Health Professions.

Earlier studies of TENS’ effectiveness in treating chronic low back pain showed mixed results, but those studies used lower doses and fewer treatment sessions, George says. “TENS seems to be effective with reducing movement-evoked pain,” George says.


Future work needs to compare the effectiveness of TENS to drug treatments for controlling chronic low back pain in older adults, says Simon.

“TENS is inexpensive, it is a conservative intervention and it is potentially safer for older adults where pharmacologic agents may pose a higher risk,” he says. “Comparing the efficacy of TENS to pharmacologic agents is an important next step for geriatric pain research.”