Understanding IMS: A Treatment For Chronic Pain

So, What is IMS?

IMS, or Intramuscular Stimulation, is an innovative treatment for when life literally gets on your nerves. In the 1970s, physician Dr. Gunn became curious about his patients at the British Columbia Workers Compensation Board: why were some people still experiencing pain even though the actual injury to the tissue was long gone?

Through his research, Dr. Gunn discovered that supersensitivity in the nerves and the resulting shortened muscle fibres were behind his patient’s chronic aches and pains. Changes to the function of these nerves were not visible by X-ray or MRI, painkillers merely masked the pain, and surgery was not an option.

Inspired by this research, IMS practitioners today use acupuncture-style needles to release this tension and soothe overly irritated nerves. Tennis elbow, chronic low back pain, headaches, stiff necks and tendonitis can all respond well to this treatment.

Understanding the Process

IMS is a simple and direct approach to pain relief. A well trained physiotherapist has extensive knowledge of biomechanics, posture, movement and muscle tone.

In your first IMS session, the physiotherapist performs a thorough evaluation of your movement, strength and function. Various tests are done including muscle strength, range of motion and reflex testing. Hands on examination of the skin and muscles is completed both at the area of pain as well as along the spine to evaluate changes brought about by unhealthy nerves.

The achey and tight muscles that you feel when you have ongoing pain has a physical basis because every muscle in your body is wired up to a network of nerves, but when nerve flow becomes blocked the nerve can behave erratically and causes changes in the muscle. The result can include muscle weakness and most often knotty and tight muscles that cause pain.


ims_imageThe physiotherapist uses fine acupuncture needles to get into the irritated muscle bands. The needle which is housed in a plastic tube is pressed and tapped gently against the skin by the physiotherapist, allowing the needle to enter the muscle.

Next, the physiotherapist uses the fine art of touch – healthy and relaxed muscles yield easily; unhappy ones provide increased resistance. An aggravated muscle contracts and twitches when stimulated by the needle, causing an ache that can last a few seconds.

There are a number of changes that take place when the needle is inserted into an aggravated muscle. First off,  special receptors in the tendons are activated by the muscle contraction and these receptors send messages to the muscle to relax again. What’s more, this tiny “injury” created by the needle boosts healing blood flow to the area bringing many healing chemicals to the area. Ultimately, inserting the needle also creates what’s called an “electric potential” which acts almost like a reset switch for your nerves to function normally again.

How Does it Feel?

The experience of an IMS treatment greatly varies from person to person. Irritated muscles respond to a needle by cramping, aching or contracting – though it is not the needle causing the pain, but the muscles response to it. This response can be uncomfortable and sometimes painful for people, but it’s temporary. Your level of discomfort is in some ways dictated by the level of nerve dysfunction and decreases as the nerve returns to normal function.

It’s understandable if you might be a little anxious about your first session, but our IMS trained physiotherapists work with you to help minimize any potential discomfort.  The most common side effect of the treatment is soreness to the treated areas-not unlike being sore from a work-out at the gym. By placing heat on the affected areas can help to reduce that discomfort. Some may experience bruising from the treatment but this tends to heal in a couple of days. If you have a medical condition or take medications that increase your risk of bruising and bleeding please let us know during the assessment.

Is IMS the Same as Acupuncture? 

While it’s true that IMS uses acupuncture needles, the two techniques are actually quite different. IMS was developed from an evidence based, Western model of medicine. By looking at an individual’s nerve functioning, a therapist can identify areas of hypersensitivity and work directly to release tension. Neuropathy, or dysfunction of the nerves, has been found to cause a whole range of muscle based problems otherwise known as myofascial pain syndromes.

Acupuncture, on the other hand, is much older and based on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). By seeing the human body in terms of energy meridians, acupuncture practitioners manipulate chi and blood flow to restore and heal the body.

While an acupuncturist will insert needles into pre-defined points along these energy channels, an IMS practitioner will examine you thoroughly to find out your unique biomechanical patterns of nerve and muscle functioning.

Could You Benefit from IMS?

IMS is perfect for those nagging aches that just don’t seem to go away, even when the injury that originally caused them is no longer there. Some clues that you may be experiencing muscle shortening or over-sensitive nerves include:

  • Stiffness and a decreased range of movement
  • Shortened muscles with tender “trigger points”
  • A feeling of heat and burning in the area
  • Deep aches
  • Occasional short, sharp bursts of pain
  •  Extreme sensitivity to touch

One of our experienced IMS trained physiotherapists will be able to examine you thoroughly and determine exactly what is behind your chronic pain. By targeting several muscles at once, and over the course of a few sessions, the pain signals can be “switched off” and the muscles given the chance to release and return to normal.


Go here to read another great IMS article by Rob from New Leaf Physio.