Functional electrical stimulation (FES)

What is FES?

Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) uses small electrical currents to improve the mobility lost due to a number of different conditions, including strokes and MS.

What does it treat?

The main condition FES treats is dropped foot, which occurs due to damage to nerve pathways connected to the brain, resulting in poor coordination or weakness in the ankles and legs. The affected foot may feel numb, drag behind or the toes may hang down, all of which cause problems when walking. This difficulty also results in a greater number of trips and falls. Sufferers may attempt to adapt their walk, but often overcompensate with the degree of their movements e.g. raising their leg higher than is needed. After time this may lead to other problems, such as poor balance, pain in the hips and lower back and tightened muscles.

How does it work?

FES works by sending electrical impulses directly to the nerves in the affected muscles, thereby stimulating movement and enabling the wearer to walk correctly.

There are different types of devices, but generally each has a small control box, which is worn at the waist or on the leg. A pressure sensitive switch resides inside the shoe, which when the foot is lifted is activated and sends an impulse, causing the foot to lean towards the right angle when lifted. After the foot is placed back on the ground, pressure is pushed down on the switch and the impulse stops.

Could I be a candidate for FES treatment?

To be a candidate for FES you have to be able to walk, even if only for a small distance and even if you require a stick or crutch to do so. This means that the nerve fibres between the muscles and spinal cord are still intact and this stimulation is needed for the device to work.

Will it improve my walk?

Wearing FES can result in a natural walking pattern, longer distances and a greater ease of movement when walking. It can also mean fewer trips and falls and often an increase in speed for many wearers. FES can return a person's walking abilities and confidence and with a course of physiotherapy can help build up strength.

However, it does not protect your nerves from further damage and some people may find as time goes by that FES is less effective.

Are there any side effects?

The only side effect is a 'pins and needles' sensation. Most people become used to this after spending time wearing the device, but it has been known to cause further discomfort for MS sufferers, as they have a greater sense of change in their sensory input. A low intensity setting usually addresses this problem.

For a great number of people, however, FES can change their life and returned the mobility and confidence they have lost.