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Open Access Research article

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation attenuates CFA-induced hyperalgesia and inhibits spinal ERK1/2-COX-2 pathway activation in rats

Jun-Fan Fang, Yi Liang, Jun-Ying Du and Jian-Qiao Fang*

Author Affiliations

Department of Neurobiology & Acupuncture Research, the Third Clinical College, Zhejiang Chinese Medical University, Hangzhou, China

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BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2013, 13:134  doi:10.1186/1472-6882-13-134

Published: 15 June 2013



Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a non-pharmacologic treatment for pain relief. In previous animal studies, TENS effectively alleviated Complete Freund’s Adjuvant (CFA)- or carrageenan-induced inflammatory pain. Although TENS is known to produce analgesia via opioid activation in the brain and at the spinal level, few reports have investigated the signal transduction pathways mediated by TENS. Prior studies have verified the importance of the activation of extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) signal transduction pathway in the spinal cord dorsal horn (SCDH) in acute and persistent inflammatory pains. Here, by using CFA rat model, we tested the efficacy of TENS on inhibiting the expressions of p-ERK1/2 and of its downstream cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) and the level of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) at spinal level.


Rats were randomly divided into control, model and TENS groups, and injected subcutaneously with 100 μl CFA or saline in the plantar surface of right hind paw. Rats in the TENS group were treated with TENS (constant aquare wave, 2 Hz and 100 Hz alternating frequencies, intensities ranging from 1 to 2 mA, lasting for 30 min each time) at 5 h and 24 h after injection. Paw withdrawal thresholds (PWTs) were measured with dynamic plantar aesthesiometer at 3d before modeling and 5 h, 6 h, and 25 h after CFA injection. The ipsilateral sides of the lumbar spinal cord dosral horns were harvested for detecting the expressions of p-ERK1/2 and COX-2 by western blot analysis and qPCR, and PGE2 by ELISA.


CFA-induced periphery inflammation decreased PWTs and increased paw volume of rats. TENS treatment significantly alleviated mechanical hyperalgesia caused by CFA. However, no anti-inflammatory effect of TENS was observed. Expression of p-ERK1/2 protein and COX-2 mRNA was significantly up-regualted at 5 h and 6 h after CFA injection, while COX-2 and PGE2 protein level only increased at 6 h after modeling. Furthermore, the high expression of p-ERK1/2 and COX-2, and over-production of PGE2 induced by CFA, were suppressed by TENS administration.


TENS may be an effective therapy in controlling inflammatory pain induced by CFA. Its analgesic effect may be associated with the inhibition of activation of the spinal ERK1/2-COX-2 pathway.

Inflammatory pain; Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation; Anti-inflammatory pain; CFA; ERK1/2; COX-2; PGE2; Signal transduction pathway