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What is the difference between magnetic stimulation and electrical stimulation?

Short answer: Electrical stimulation is painful; magnetic stimulation is not.

Since the work of Galvani and Volta in the 1790s it has been known that neuromuscular tissue can be stimulated by externally applied electrical currents. Stimulating the peripheral nervous system by electricity is done by applying electrodes to the skin and sending current through the electrodes and thereby through the tissue. The current sent through the tissue will activate the nerves and thereby activate the muscles in the area affected. Those who have tried this will know that this is an unpleasant and painful experience.

Magnetic stimulation is without pain

In 1831 Faraday made a discovery that forms the basis of magnetic stimulation. This discovery told us that a time varying magnetic field can be used to induce an electric current. Thus by using magnetic stimulation it is possible to activate the peripheral muscles without the pain experienced by electrical stimulation. Furthermore, no electrodes have to be positioned.

Constant current

If a constant current is sent through a coil, a magnetic field is generated. But Faraday's law tells us that a constant magnetic field is not able to induce a current in tissue and is therefore unable to generate a movement of the muscle. If the current sent through the coil is varied in time, the magnetic field generated by the coil will also vary in time. The keyword here is varying and only a varying field is able to induce an electric field.

If the coil is placed over e.g. the left arm and a short current pulse is sent through the coil, an electric field will be induced in the left arm and if the change of the magnetic field is sufficiently high, the fingers of the left hand will twitch. This happens because the electric field will change the electrical potential over the nerve cell wall and if this change is large enough, an action potential in the nerve will be generated. If the nerve is a motor nerve, a muscle fiber in the arm will be activated. If enough muscle fibers are activated, the fingers on the left arm will twitch.

Magnetic stimulation superior to electrical stimulation

So if the induced electric field and thereby the induced current is of sufficient amplitude and duration, neuromuscular tissue will be stimulated in the same way as with conventional electrical stimulation. Adding that magnetic stimulation is independent of clothing and bone/tissue structure makes the technique of magnetic stimulation superior to electrical stimulation in both research and in the clinic.

Stimulation of excitable tissues with a time-varying magnetic field is highly attractive because the technique can be applied noninvasively and is virtually painless. This technique using no electrodes is ideally suited to stimulating superficial tissues such as the motor nerves (known as Functional Magnetic Stimulation - FMS) and the cerebral cortex (known as Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) or repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (rTMS).


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