Exercise can benefit people who have, or are recovering from, a serious illness, including cancer. The problem is, people who are very ill often have muscle weakness and other side effects that prevent them from being physically active. It’s a catch-22 situation.
Fortunately, there may be a technological solution and it goes by the rather unattractive name of neuromuscular electrical stimulation - or NMES, for short. You may have seen this type of gadget advertised on TV, promising you a six-pack without having to do a single sit-up. All you have to do is strap a belt, studded with electrodes, around your middle, and let the electrical impulses do the work. Each time a shock is delivered, the muscles contract, as they would through regular exercise.
The concept of NMES is actually very old. The ancient Greeks and Romans were the first to identify the medical potential of electrical stimulation, using electrical torpedo fish to generate shocks to help with pain relief. Treatment moved from natural to man-made electricity in the 18th and 19th centuries, with the development of the first NMES devices.
Nowadays, we don’t just use these devices for pain relief, but for rehabilitation too. Research shows that it may help minimise muscle mass loss and increase strength in the leg muscles when exercise isn’t possible. A major benefit of these devices is that they can be used at home, without supervision.
How it works
The hand-held devices make muscles contract by delivering electrical impulses to the muscle. The “shocks” are delivered via pads studded with electrodes. These adhere to the skin and are controlled by the portable unit. Electrodes are usually placed on large muscles, such as the quadriceps in the legs.
The intensity of the stimulation can be increased and decreased by the patient. To help with muscle strengthening, impulses are delivered in cycles so that muscles are contracted for a short time before relaxing. Common strategies use a five-second contraction followed by a 10-second relaxation period before repeating. Sessions last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.
NMES has been shown to benefit people with spinal cord injury, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and those who have undergone orthopaedic surgery. It has also been shown to help with muscle strengthening in healthy people and high-level athletes.
However, data from cancer studies has been less convincing. NMES should also not be promoted as a long-term alternative to normal exercise. - The Conversation