Can IFT help with chronic pain?
Living with chronic pain from an injury can feel like a life sentence, especially when the pain stops you --one by one -- from participating in activities you love.
If you’re in this position, you have probably already tried the common treatments.
Doctors often start with NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). The side-effects for this class of drugs include ulcers, headaches, dizziness, liver and kidney issues, high blood pressure, and leg swelling.
Not exactly the stuff that gets you back on your feet.
There are also opiates, but their side-effects tend to be even more severe and include brain damage and dependence.
The right treatment can be hard to find. If you’ve been looking for a while, you may start to feel like Goldilocks. This treatment is too invasive, this treatment is too risky, and this treatment has too many side-effects. Sounding familiar? Interferential Therapy (IFT) could be the non-invasive answer you’ve been looking for.
IFT is one of several types of physiotherapy treatments (e.g. TENS, MIC, and EMS) that use safe levels of electric current to stimulate tissue. IFT is thought to work by stimulating parasympathetic nerve fibres to increase blood flow and reduce oedema, by passing currents across cell membranes.
Using specific frequencies in the range, different systems within the body can be stimulated or used to increase the blood supply, which in turn hastens the healing rate.
The following article will answer common questions about IFT, including what it is, what problems it can treat and how, the possible side-effects, the benefits of using a frequency sweep, and the benefits of doing IFT therapy at home.
How Does IFT Work?
IFT was created to preserve the well-known benefits of low-frequency nerve stimulation (i.e. effectively treating pain associated with inflammatory issues) while overcoming the negative effects.
Low frequencies (approx. 1-250HZ) are used to treat pain, however, somewhat paradoxically, the process of low-frequency stimulation itself can cause discomfort or pain. This is due to the inverse relationship between the impedance of the skin and the frequency of the stimulation. For example, at 50HZ skin impedance is approximately 3200, but if the frequency is raised to 4000HZ, impedance drops to approximately 40. Essentially, higher frequencies pass more easily through the skin, requiring less electrical energy to ‘push’ the current through the barrier into deeper tissue, therefore causing less pain. So, medium frequencies -- which in electromedical terms are those between 1KHz-100KHz -- are far less painful when applied, but also less effective. Unlike low frequencies, medium frequencies do not cause direct nerve stimulation. And at present, researchers are unsure what medium frequencies do to the body if anything.
However, they are useful in one important way: multiple medium frequencies can be combined to mimic low frequencies for the same pain-relieving effects.
When two frequency currents pass through tissue simultaneously and are set up in such a way that their paths cross, they interfere with each other. This interference changes how the frequency acts, resulting in what is known as a ‘beat frequency’.
Beat frequencies possess characteristics of a low frequency. This combination of benefits from medium frequencies and low frequencies is the basic principle of IFT. Although, you may have also heard it referred to by the more descriptive term ‘Interference Current Therapy’ (ICT). The beat frequency resulting from IFT treatments can be regulated by altering the combination of medium frequencies entering the skin. For example, if one frequency is 4000HZ and the other is 3900HZ, the beat frequency is 100Hz, carried on a medium frequency 3950Hz amplitude modulated current.
While these numbers can help to illustrate how IFT works, most IFT machines allow you to change the beat frequency number directly and will calculate the input frequencies for you.
IFT is primarily used to treat inflammatory conditions. Commonly treated conditions include:
Back, Neck, and Shoulder Pain
Spondylitis and Ankylosing Spondylitis
Bruising and Swelling
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
Overuse Injuries and Surgical Procedures
Edema and Inflammation
IFT treats a diverse array of painful conditions through one or more of the four primary functions of low-frequency currents (pain relief, muscle stimulation, increased local blood flow, and reduction of oedema).
The lowest frequencies (2-5HZ) can reduce pain by activating opioid mechanisms that release naturally pain-relieving neurotransmitters. Additionally, slightly higher frequencies (90-130HZ) can stimulate pain gate mechanisms. This means that they stimulate nerves responsible for temperature and feel that meet at the spine in the same place as nerves carrying pain, effectively masking the symptoms.
Each method of pain relief has different latent periods and duration of effects, so it is recommended to try both to determine what works for your unique symptoms.
Motor nerves can be stimulated through a wide range of frequencies. The lowest frequencies (less than 10 Hz) result in twitches, while higher frequencies cause a sustained contraction. Research suggests that these compelled contractions have the potential to create strengthening effects, however, the evidence is inconclusive.
The compelled contraction may also be beneficial for people who cannot voluntarily contract their muscles or who find exercise prohibitively difficult.
The most effective frequency range for motor nerve stimulation is between approximately 10-25Hz. However, it is advised to limit treatments at this range because it is possible to stimulate muscle contractions beyond the point of fatigue. Make sure to also follow treatments in this range with sufficient periods of rest.
Increased Blood Flow
While it is not considered conclusive that IFT treatments increase blood flow, there is some evidence to suggest that the same frequency used to stimulate muscles (10-25Hz) can also increase blood flow.
Additional evidence suggests that sweep settings may be the most effective.
Reduction of Oedema
While the direct mechanism remains to be discovered, IFT has been shown to bolster oedema (excess fluid) reabsorption in tissue. Several experiments support IFT as an effective post-surgery tool to reduce fluid in the tissue.
Why Use Frequency Sweep?
IFT can be used to apply a continuous frequency, but eventually, nerves will begin to accommodate a constant signal. Using a frequency sweep (or constantly changing interference pulse frequency) is one way practitioners are able to overcome this issue.
Practical clinical experience suggests therapeutic benefits for these sweeps, in addition to those of conventional nerve stimulation.
Does IFT Cause Side-Effects?
There are no documented side-effects associated with the use of IFT physiotherapy. However, it is not recommended for pregnant women. If you are looking for a pain relief option during the final stages of pregnancy, there are similar, specialized maternity products like the MamaTENS, which are more suitable for your needs.
IFT is also not recommended for athletes at the height of their training. While there are no damaging effects to be concerned about, there is some evidence that IFT is less effective during times of strenuous training. Your results will be more effective if you wait until a break in your training where IFT can help you repair the damage.
Despite the lack of documented side-effects, like any other physiotherapy treatment, safety should be your number one priority. If you believe you are experiencing negative effects, be sure to consult your physician before continuing the treatment.
There are also a few things to consider when deciding how long or how often to use the treatment.
IFT has been demonstrated to be effective when used in 5-10 minute increments with increased effectiveness when used in 20-30 minute increments. Although, there is no evidence to suggest improved performance or more enduring results if used for longer than 30 minutes.
Similarly, there is no evidence to suggest that more frequent IFT sessions will improve results over time or make them endure. Therefore, you can schedule sessions when they are most convenient to you without worrying that your progress will be impeded when you can’t fit IFT into your schedule.
What are the Benefits of Owning a Portable IFT Machine?
Unfortunately, most physiotherapy treatments require being at a specific place and time and require you to pay per session. In most cases, IFT treatments can add up over time when they are not covered by insurance. And the time travelling back and forth to your practitioner can add up too.
But advances in technology have allowed IFT treatments to stand out as a procedure that is safe to conduct at home with your own portable machine.
Owning a portable IFT machine allows you to get the same benefits you can achieve in the physiotherapist's office, for a one-time purchase. For someone with chronic pain, the long-term savings can be immense.
You can also receive the treatment on the timeline that works best for you, in increments that suit your needs, at intervals that make you feel your best.
No waiting required.
Treating yourself at home may make you nervous at first, but when you buy a machine you trust from an accredited company, there is nothing to worry about. In fact, you will thank yourself!