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Young athlete holding his knee in pain with his trainer near by

Stick it to Pain with Iontophoresis

By: Dana S. Reesman, PT, DPT

There are several different methods for delivering medication. People are generally most familiar with taking medication by mouth and through injections, but these are not the only options available. Transdermal administration involves delivering a medication through the skin. Iontophoresis is a method of transdermal medication delivery that uses a low-level direct electrical current to “push” the medication through the skin and straight into the affected area. In CHKD’s sports medicine program, iontophoresis is commonly prescribed to deliver dexamethasone (an anti-inflammatory medication) to reduce pain and inflammation. It is prescribed by a physician and given during physical therapy.

What does it look like?

The iontophoresis patch looks like a big adhesive bandage. It has a small internal battery that helps to push the medication through the skin. The patch has two absorbent drug pads, a positive and a negative pad. In the case of dexamethasone, the medicine is applied to the negative pad while a saline solution is applied to the positive side.

How does it work?

Iontophoresis delivers medication based on the principle that like charges repel each other – like magnets pushing away from each other. This means that when a negatively charged medication, like dexamethasone, is applied to the negative drug pad, the medication will be forced away from the pad. This propels the medication through the skin to deliver the dexamethasone to the underlying tissue. The patch is applied during physical therapy, and the patient will wear the patch out of the clinic and go about their day. Patches are typically worn for two and four hours.

What does it feel like?

Because of the use of low-level electrical current, it is normal to feel a warm sensation or a mild tingling or prickling sensation. However, none of this should be painful. In the event that the treatment becomes painful, patients are advised to remove the patch and contact their physical therapist.

What are the benefits of iontophoresis?

Because iontophoresis is delivered directly into the affected area, it uses a smaller dose of medication than if it were being injected or taken by mouth, which reduces the risk of unwanted side effects. Iontophoresis is noninvasive and is typically tolerated better than injecting the medication with a needle. The most common side effect of iontophoresis is slight redness to the skin under the patch. This is completely normal and typically goes away within a few hours.

Does wearing the patch limit normal activities?

The patch is flexible and sticks well to the skin, so it shouldn’t limit normal daily activities or sports participation. However, because the patch utilizes a low-level electrical current, it should not be immersed in water. This means patients should not shower, bathe, or swim while wearing the patch.

Iontophoresis is just one of many cutting-edge technologies that are used in CHKD’s sports medicine program to give kids the best and safest care possible. For more information on the specialized services we offer, visit

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About CHKD Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine  CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.