IMS Treatment

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What Is IMS Treatment?

what is ims treatment​​

Intramuscular stimulation (IMS) treatment uses tiny needles to stimulate a reaction in the muscle, tendon, and nervous system. This type of treatment has been adapted by traditional acupuncture with the focus on the neurological and musculoskeletal systems. 

Injury leading to structural or functional damage, chronic strain, and peripheral nerve sensitization can lead to shortened and tight muscles which restricts movement, causes soreness, and makes it difficult for those muscles to perform. 

By inserting and manipulating a dry needle at the site of a trigger point can create a twitch response in the muscle which sends a rush of your own body’s pain relieving hormones up to the brain. This signals the muscle to relax and the body to restore its natural healing state. 

We have seen those who couldn’t play tennis, complete housework, or perform work duties without pain feel a big relief with IMS treatment, felling liberated to start living their lives again all without the use of pain medications. 

Physiotherapists will use IMS in combination with movement education and exercise as both together is better than IMS alone. Rebuild strength to of the muscles, strong and robust joints and tendons that can stand up to the tasks in your day. 

The Ultimate Guide to IMS Treatment

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The Ultimate Guide to IMS Treatment

Treating Pain by Restoring Proper Nerve Function

Looking for a new way to relieve your muscle and nerve pain that doesn’t involve medications? One of the bright new stars quickly gaining ground in the pain treatment world is IMS treatment – intramuscular stimulation. 

IMS therapy, founded by Dr. Chan Gunn in the 1970s, uses ultra-thin needles like those used in acupuncture, but in a very different manner and for a very different purpose. We’ll discuss the differences between these treatments a bit later. 

IMS treatment offers a method of both relieving the pain allowing the nervous system to calm down so the root cause can become more apparent. Sometimes patients report dramatic improvements after just a couple visits. For other conditions, longer treatment plans are needed, and IMS treatment is helpful in tandem with a physiotherapy treatment plan. 

So, when might IMS treatment be used? Let’s dive a little deeper. 

When Is IMS Treatment Used?

Broadly speaking, IMS treatment can be a very effective method for treating pain in your muscles, joints, and tendons, especially when the communication between the nerves and the muscles are part of the problem. 

If you have tension in your muscles, tightness, or soreness that refuses to go away and seems to linger or even get worse when you’re just trying to go about your day, IMS therapy may be the fastest way to help the problem. Getting help from a physiotherapist trained in IMS treatment and in how to assess these issues will help you determine your best course of action. 

When the issue causing your pain is the communication between the nerves and the muscles, IMS therapy may offer your best chance at fast relief. 

IMS treatment can also play a role in improving muscle activation potential, an example of this is when muscles are weakened due to prolonged inactivity. If you are recovering from a severe injury like a broken bone and have gone several weeks to months with a cast, unable to use the muscles surrounding the injured area, IMS physiotherapy can help you rebuild the strength of these muscles and tendons in combination with a strengthening program, once you get rid of the cast

Individualized to you needs, if you have jaw pain, ankle pain, shoulder pain, back pain, elbow pain, knee pain, or pain almost anywhere else IMS treatment can be targeted just to that specific area. Sometimes it can be used on the surrounding areas. Often, the ‘compensating muscles’ nearby the site of pain will play a key role in strengthening the injured area. Your physiotherapist will be sure to assess and address your specific needs to create an individualized plan just for you!

IMS treatment has been used with great success to treat conditions such as:

  • Deep tissue pain – when pain feels under the surface, deep in the muscles
  • Chronic low back pain
  • Tennis elbow
  • Fibromyalgia 
  • Injuries from car accidents or the workplace 
  • Headaches

Read the caption on this post by Infinity Physio Centre to learn more about how IMS works:

Does IMS Treatment Hurt?

The short answer is – not much, but you may feel it for a day or two.

Because IMS treatment often involves more needle movement and customized needle positioning than acupuncture, most patients who receive it say they feel the aftereffects a bit more as well. It is described by most as a ‘dull ache,’ or a deep cramp, sort of how you feel after a good workout. This is because the muscles have been stimulated, it is a good sign.

But yes, you do feel it afterward, and sometimes some minor muscle soreness can linger for a day or two. You can manage it with heat, ice, or sometimes light exercise.

Here’s a video showing a patient receiving IMS treatment.

Other people compare the feeling of intramuscular stimulation to that of getting a flu shot. It lingers a bit and then goes away. So not everyone has the same experience.

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7 Ways IMS Treatment Is Different from Acupuncture

7 ways ims treatment is different from acupuncture

The use of dry needles is one of the few things in common between intramuscular stimulation and acupuncture. The differences are more on the basis of technique, foundations the technique is built on, and clinical reasoning behind the use of IMS instead of other modes of treatment. A skilled physiotherapist will assess the many factors that brings them to the  shared clinical decision of incorporating IMS into your care plan. 

1. IMS Is Based on Science, Acupuncture and Philosophy

Physiotherapists practice with science as number one, however other factors interact with their clinical decision making process. That is why the traditional knowledge and philosophy behind the technique has its place in therapy. 

Traditional Acupuncture uses meridians that interact with the nervous system and organ systems which channels energy throughout the body along particular lines. This determines where the needles get placed. When practiced by a traditional acupuncturist they assess based on the interaction with all the body systems to interact on each other. When a physiotherapist performs acupuncture their focus is mainly on muscle pain, tissue healing, swelling, and nerve pain. 

In IMS therapy, needle placement is more specific on the injury, the muscles involved, the nerves in question, and other specifics that will be different for each patient. There is no ‘standard’ approach to IMS for where to place the needles. Each injury, and therefore each treatment, is different depending on the patient. 

Check out this post, courtesy of Peak Health Calgary, to learn more about different types of acupuncture: 

2. Acupuncture Leave Needles Inserted for Longer Time

In a typical acupuncture session, once all the needles have been placed, they will be left inserted for 15 to 30 minutes, undisturbed. 

Whereas in an IMS treatment session, needles may be inserted for only a few minutes, sometimes much less. IMS is a much faster treatment than acupuncture.

3. Needles Are Manipulated in IMS Therapy

In acupuncture, the needles are inserted straight and left alone once all have been placed according to the plan. The patient is undisturbed for 15-30 minutes. But in IMS therapy, often the therapist will twirl or otherwise manipulate the needles so as to produce the designed response from the muscles and the nerves.

Remember, the idea with IMS treatment is to stimulate the muscles to grip the needle and then relax their tension and reset their communication with the nerve. This often requires some twirling motion and other techniques.

Watch this quick video to see how the needles are manipulated by a physiotherapist (courtesy of Sporting Edge Physiotherapy):

4. Potentially Deeper Needle Insertion in IMS Therapy

Needles can be placed deeper into the muscles with IMS treatment. This makes sense, because again the whole point is to produce a reaction from the muscle. If you don’t reach the muscle or go deep enough to stimulate it, you won’t achieve the goal of the treatment. 

With acupuncture, needles are not inserted as deeply, and only in specific, predetermined locations.

To get a better idea, take a look at this quick video that shows exactly how deep the needles are inserted (courtesy of Sporting Edge Physiotherapy)

5. IMS Is More Specific

For specific injuries on specific muscles and nerves, IMS therapy will likely be the more effective treatment option, because it can target that area. Shoulder injuries, jaw clicking, back pain, and other conditions.

Acupuncture is a more general approach to pain that may or may not be localized in a specific part of the body. For instance, WebMD points to several studies showing acupuncture to be an effective treatment for migraine headaches – a condition with a less specific and often less obvious causes. It is also effective with inflammation that is not localized to a particular muscle group.

Take a look at this quick video of a physiotherapy from Sporting Edge Physiotherapy performing targeted IMS treatment on a patient’s tight jaw muscles:

6. Acupuncture Produces Less Soreness

As mentioned earlier, IMS treatment sometimes leads to muscle soreness for a day or two. This is because of the increased levels of needle manipulation and targeted nature of the therapy. Because acupuncture is less invasive, it tends to produce less soreness. Most people report feeling no soreness at all. 

7. Different Methods of Diagnosis

Before conducting an acupuncture session, the therapist uses a more routine and systematic inspection, and follows the methods that are recommended based on the theory of needle placement. 

For IMS treatment, an examination and assessment from a clinician certified in IMS therapy involves much more. This trained specialist knows how to identify the symptoms of trigger points, specific nerve involvement, individual factors like activity level, complicating factors, and treatment preference. 

Does IMS Help Treat Back Pain?

Back pain, and especially low back pain, has a long list of possible causes, including:

  • Repetitive motion
  • Workplace injuries
  • Poor posture over long periods of time
  • Sports injuries
  • Auto accidents
  • Improper lifting technique

What makes low back pain particularly troublesome is that it can transition from a temporary pain to a chronic injury. If the discs in your spine get injured or there have been changes to the spine that makes it difficult to tolerate activity, these types of injuries can be very difficult to remedy and cope with. 

Therefore, keeping your low back pain from becoming a chronic condition is a battle against time. Fixing the problem now, before it gets worse, can mean the difference between getting back to the life you want to live sooner than later.

Do you want to be able to play with your grandkids on their level? Want to be able to do more than just sit and read to them (as good as that is!)? Then do whatever it takes to keep you moving well for the years leading up to and during those times.

Just like muscle injuries elsewhere in the body, when the nerves in an area become more sensitive, they can start sending the wrong signals to the affected tissues and back up to the brain. Muscles tighten up and shorten and when stress or strain would typically feel okay in normal circumstances, a sensitive nerve and affected muscle becomes intolerant to stressors. Ultimately telling your brain that there is “danger” in the area making you feel your pain.

Intramuscular stimulation can target these areas of your back, relax the muscles, reset the nerve-muscle communication, and relieve the pain. More importantly, because the IMS therapy is addressing a root cause, nerve sensitization, you can get back to living your life sooner than later. This contributes to positive health outcomes.

How IMS Therapy Treats Shoulder Pain

Though back pain seems to get more attention in the media, shoulder pain is often even more debilitating and can destroy your quality of life. Think about how many basic tasks in life depend on having a shoulder and rotator cuff that work properly:

  • Reaching above your head – for anything
  • Lifting almost anything
  • Getting dressed
  • Working around the house
  • Showering
  • Cutting with a knife
  • Pulling
  • Playing most sports, even casually playing catch with your kid in the backyard
  • Steering your car
  • Even sleeping!

Shoulder pain can lead to neck pain and back pain because you will try to compensate for the lack of easy motion, pain, and stiffness in your shoulder.

The rotator cuff muscle group is very reactive to pain signals. Meaning, pain in and around the shoulder can make it difficult for those cuff muscles to do their job. The change in cuff activity can change the way we move our shoulder and therefore contributing to tension, nerve compression, and sensitivity to tendons. 

The resulting loss of pain-free motion combined with inflammation of the shoulder and surrounding areas can lead to major problems and a great loss in your quality of life.

We have seen many shoulder injuries in Waterview’s physiotherapy clinic. IMS therapy combined with physiotherapy has consistently resulted in the best possible outcomes. IMS helps relieve the muscle tension, nerve pain, and assist the shoulder in pain-free movement.

Common Injuries Successfully Treated With IMS Treatment

Frequently Asked Questions

In most situations where IMS treatment is recommended, it will be safe. Situations where IMS might not be safe include people who are on certain medications like blood thinners, or who have a bleeding disorder. You should also not do IMS therapy while pregnant. Consult your IMS treatment specialist to be sure if it is safe and recommended for your situation.

IMS therapy helps relieve muscle and nerve pain by helping constricted muscles relax and improving nerve communication. By relaxing muscles and having pain relief there is an improvement in movement. The better we feel moving the healthier our body is and therefore contributing to recovery and prevention.

This is just technical language. A ‘wet needle’ is a needle that injects something into the patient. A ‘dry needle’ is a needle that does not inject anything. Thus, IMS treatment and acupuncture are both forms of dry needling.

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IMS treatment is one of several possible methods for relieving pain that do not rely on prescription medications and all the side effects and baggage they come with. Not to mention that most drugs can only mask pain, but rarely address root causes. Find a clinic if you are suffering from muscle tightness, soreness, or pain to improve your quality of life, today.