How does IMS work?

What is IMS? What does it stand for? How long has it been around? How would it help me? These are definitely some of the most frequent questions I get when I first suggest it as a treatment option to my patients. So, today, I’d like to briefly explain it to you in as straightforward a manner as possible, without going into too much complicated anatomy!

First off, IMS stands for intramuscular stimulation. It is often called Gunn IMS, named after the doctor who developed it Chan Gunn. Back in the late 1970’s Dr. Gunn, who at the time was working for the Worker’s Compensation Board of BC, was finding many patients with chronic pain.  Their pain persisted despite lacking any significant physical impairment such as a broken bone or a torn tendon. He was a western trained doctor but also understood traditional medical acupuncture. He reasoned that much of this chronic pain was muscular pain caused by the nerves that supplied these muscles. He called this type of pain neuropathic pain. He figured if he could “re-boot” the nervous impulses supplying these muscles that they would settle down. He thus went about crafting a theory for how to do this using acupuncture needles (which I will get into below).

Fast forward a few decades, and this approach has picked up quite a bit of steam. The credit of course going to Dr. Gunn and the other researchers who helped explore his concepts through several scientific studies. He also developed a training program for medical professionals, including physiotherapists, which is now taught out of the department of continuing education for the faculty of medicine at UBC.

So, how does it work? Well, when you stick a thin needle into a tight muscle and delicately change its depth and direction, you will eventually get one of two things: a “twitch”, or a dull, cramp-like sensation. The “twitch” is a relatively quick contraction of muscle, followed by an immediate relaxation. The dull sensation is a slower contraction, followed by a slower release a few seconds later. After the twitch or dull sensation is gone then the needle is removed (typically only a few seconds). Normal muscles will not respond like this, you won’t feel anything in a normal muscle.

What’s the reason that the tight muscles contract and relax like this? Well, it has to do with the stretch reflex, a little sensory mechanism inside every muscle that controls how tight the muscle gets. If the muscle’s stretch receptors are constantly stimulated then the muscle will always be at a low level of contraction. This is why some muscles feel tight and like you can never relax them.

This is what IMS was designed to treat – the type of muscle pain that is always there. The type of pain that only gets better for a short time but then comes right back after doing things like stretching and massage. Does this sound like you? Do you have some of these areas in your body? Then, call our office today and get an initial assessment with one of our three physiotherapists qualified to perform IMS!

Written By:

Pat new head shot #1

Patrick Jadan


Co-Owner of South Cowichan Physiotherapy

Want to learn more about how he can help you? Then check out his bio by clicking here

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