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The Gate Control Theory: History of Electrotherapy

Published November 17, 2017
| Written By SpineNation Editorial Staff  

Have you guys heard about electrotherapy for chronic back pain relief? In case this is your first time hearing of this therapy approach, read our 9 Facts: What is a TENS Unit? and then come back here.

We figured you may be curious about the history of electrotherapy that is utilized in TENS units.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a treatment that employs low-voltage electrical current for pain relief. You use TENS therapy for any chronic pain condition by turning on a small, battery-operated device the size of a pocket radio.

Ordinarily, you connect two electrodes, which are wires that conduct electrical current, from the machine onto your skin and, bam — pain relief.

An electrotherapy unit in action.Caption: Taken from Amazon —here we see electrotherapy in action as a female back pain patient diagnosed with degenerative disc disease and bulging discs —turns on her TENS unit. 

What about its History?

The TENS unit is derived from the "gate control theory of pain." The theory asserts that non-painful input closes the "gates" to painful input, which prevents pain sensation from traveling to the central nervous system. Therefore, stimulation by the non-noxious input is able to suppress your chronic pain.

We can thank leading British neuroscientists Ronald Melzack and Patrick D Wall's research from the 1960’s that led to their branded named (in 1965) called the “Gate Control Theory." It was then recognized that electricity can play an important part in reducing pain for those with chronic pain conditions.

Today’s medical world continues to draw from ancient and present developments. Its advanced research often induces from the old and combines it with the new. Ancient Greece utilized this therapy with electric fish to relieve headaches and other pain conditions.

Hand-held generated electricity grew so popular in the 19th century, Queen Victoria and "normal folks" used it to relieve pain and other chronic pain disorders. They were definitely on to something. 

Painting depicting electricity being used to alleviate pain in the 19th century.Caption: A doctor demonstrates electrotherapy on a young semi-naked woman in front of other doctors and a nurse, as other female patients watch in the background. This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom.

It was said that when Queen Victoria became pregnant with her first child, she declared she did not want to feel any pain during childbirth. She was a trendsetter for anesthesia and applied it during labor.

Where is electrotherapy today?

Flash forward nearly a century later. Enter the gate control theory that manifested the physiological explanation for the use of electricity, and if practiced accurately for the right type of ailment, this device may be a suitable and safe option.

Nowadays, electrotherapy is used in physical therapy and other medical arenas for relaxing muscle spasms, preventing atrophy, increasing blood circulation, maintaining and increasing range of motion, as well as managing chronic pain in your back or spine.

Interested in learning more about the TENS Unit and electrotherapy? Visit

Updated: February 12, 2020

Information provided within this article is for educational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Those seeking specific medical advice should consult his or her doctor or surgeon. If you need to consult with a specialist, you may be able find a health care provider in our Specialist Finder. SpineNation does not endorse treatments, procedures, products or physicians.

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