Neuromuscular Electrical Stimulation (NMES)

Diagram of Neuromuscular electrical stimulation therapy

What is neuromuscular electrical stimulation therapy?

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) is a specialized form of electrical stimulation therapy designed to treat dysphagia. This special therapy has been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration and is non-invasive (does not go inside the body).

What is dysphagia?

Dysphagia is a term that means “difficulty swallowing.” It is the inability of food or liquids to pass easily from the mouth, into the throat, and down into the esophagus to the stomach during the process of swallowing. It can be caused by a variety of conditions including problems and malformations during prenatal development, developmental delays, prematurity and certain medical conditions. Dysphagia can result in food or drink being swallowed incorrectly and even lead to poor nutrition, weight gain or pneumonia.

How does neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) work?

During NMES, a special device is used to deliver a small electric current to a child’s face or neck. The electrical current is delivered through specially placed electrodes on the child’s face and/or neck. The electrical current stimulates the nerves and muscles responsible for swallowing.

Neuromuscular electrical stimulation benefits

This stimulation improves the strength, coordination, endurance, sensory feedback and timing in the muscles involved in eating, drinking and swallowing. While the electrical stimulation is being delivered, a certified therapist helps patients train their muscles with special exercises. Over time, the child’s muscles are trained how to properly swallow food and drink. The main goal of electrical stimulation therapy is to strengthen weak muscles and to help children gain control of their oral motor skills.

Are there any risks or side effects of electrical stimulation therapy?

There are no associated risks known at this time. Side effects include redness and irritation to the skin which typically clears with topical moisturizer in 24 to 48 hours. The electrical current may start off as a slight tingling sensation and build to a pulling sensation. In addition to previously published studies, researchers continue to study the use and effectiveness of neuromuscular electrical stimulation as a part of dysphagia treatment. CHOC uses FDA-approved devices specifically made for use on the face and neck.

How often does my child need NMES therapy?

Treatment at CHOC outpatient rehabilitation facility is typically two to three times per week over a three-month period. Each session lasts about 45 to 60 minutes and consists of a combination of feeding and oral motor therapies and exercises. In a typical treatment session, stimulation remains on for the duration of the session or as the patient tolerates the stimulation.

What is the difference between a TENS unit and NMES?

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) unit is similar to NMES and involves the use of electrical pulses that are delivered through leads and electrodes. The goal of utilizing a TENS unit is to reduce and/or manage pain as it stimulates at a sensory level rather than a neuromuscular level.