Background and Uses

People who suffer from chronic pain often try one treatment after another – massage, heat, spinal manipulation, drugs, even surgery – but find only temporary relief.

However, a recent breakthrough in the study of chronic pain has led to the development and testing of a new method of diagnosis and treatment called Intramuscular Stimulation (IMS). This method is effective even when no injury has occurred and no inflammation is present.

IMS was developed by Dr. Chan Gunn, Clinical Professor at the University of Washington’s Multidisciplinary Pain Centre in Seattle and at the University of British Columbia’s Medical School. It is now used at many pain centres and has gained the respect of practitioners around the world.

IMS draws on both the traditional practice of acupuncture and recent advances in medical research. Effective in treating chronic pain caused by the irritation of nerves (neuropathic pain), it has been documented as helping a variety of conditions including:

  • chronic ‘whiplash’ pain
  • spinal pain
  • headaches
  • jaw pain
  • repetitive strain syndrome
  • carpal tunnel syndrome
  • myofascial trigger points
  • tennis elbow/golfer’s elbow
  • trigger finger
  • iliotibial band syndrome
  • piriformis syndrome
  • shin splints
  • patello-femoral syndrome
  • achilles tendonitis
  • plantar fasciitis

The Origins of Chronic Pain

The pain of a fracture or swollen joint is clearly caused by injury or inflammation and usually responds well to conventional treatment. However, many other painful conditions cannot be attributed to these causes and often resist standard treatment. In the past, such conditions were thought to be local in origin. It is now understood that they share a common cause: irritation of a nerve which results in neuropathic pain.

Cycles of Neuropathic Pain

The Role of the Spine and Nerve Roots
Neuropathic pain typically occurs when nerves malfunction following minor irritation. The point of irritation is almost always at the root of the nerve where it emerges from the spinal column. By far the most common cause of irritation to nerve roots is spinal degeneration (spondylosis). Usually the result of normal daily activities, it involves compression of spinal discs and wear on the joints that link the vertebrae.

The Role of Supersensitive Nerves
Irritation of a nerve root causes supersensitivity of the nerve. In such a state, the nerve exaggerates ordinarily harmless signals which may then be perceived as painful. Because nerves fan out from the spine, irritation of a nerve root can be responsible for pain or soft tissue changes in any part of the body.

The Role of Muscle Shortening
When muscles receive exaggerated signals from supersensitive nerves, they contract and remain contracted. They then put great strain on the tendons attached to them and the joints that they move. In this way, chronic muscle shortening contributes to degenerative changes such as tendonitis and osteoarthritis. Around the spine, shortened muscles further compress discs and further irritate nerve roots...and so a chronic cycle of pain begins.

Breaking the Cycle of Pain

The goal of IMS is to release shortened muscles which irritate nerves and, by doing so, desensitize painful supersensitive areas.
It is often successful in breaking the chronic cycle of pain because
it permits accurate diagnosis of muscle shortening in deep muscles. It provides lasting relief and has few side-effects.

Experiencing IMS
IMS treatment begins with a thorough musculoskeletal examination followed by stimulation of shortened muscles by needling. IMS needles are adapted from those used in acupuncture and are much finer than the hollow needles used for injections. They are disposable and are not reused.

The Needling Process
Tender and tight muscle bands indicate where the needle should be inserted. If your muscle is normal, insertion is painless. However, if it is supersensitive and shortened, you will feel a cramping sensation as the needling causes your muscle to contract more than ever. This uncomfortable cramping lasts for only a few seconds and is critical to the healing process. It subsequently allows your muscle to relax and is followed by long-term relief. Soreness after treatment is normal and may last for several days.

Treatments – How Often and for How Long?
An appointment once every week to two weeks allows for healing between treatments. The number of treatments needed depends on factors such as the duration and extent of your condition, the presence or absence of scar tissue and the speed at which your body heals. You are likely to notice a marked improvement within six to eight visits.

The Effects of IMS: What to Expect
The impact of IMS is cumulative. Each needling stimulates further healing. If no structural damage has occurred, the condition will eventually heal. If spondylosis is present, symptoms can be greatly relieved and mobility dramatically increased.

IMS assessments and treatments are provided by:

Martin Blaser (B.A./B.P.H.E., B.Sc. P.T., C.I.M.S., M.C.P.A.). He received his certification after training with Dr. Gunn at Study and Treatment of Pain, Vancouver, B.C. (affiliated with the University of British Columbia’s Medical School).

© 2001 Blaser's Physiotherapy Professional Corporation.
Kingston, ON
No reproduction or republication in whole or part without written permission.