The story of diathermy began in 1892 when Doctor Jacques Arsène d’Arsonval demonstrated that a high frequency electric current could pass through a person’s body without electrocuting them, the only sensation being that of warmth (Cumberbatch, 1937, p.13).
Further experiments by d’Arsonval and others led to the use of high frequency currents to heat up body tissues. Heat treatments – using such things as hot bricks, poultices, hot water and sunshine – had been used in medicine treatments for centuries but none of these previous practices delivered heat as deeply.
Although d’Arsonval introduced the idea, it was the German physician, Karl Franz Nagelschmidt who did the most to get it accepted in medical circles. In 1908, he demonstrated the deep-heating effect of high frequency currents using a machine of his own devising, coined the term diathermy, and then published a book on the subject in 1913 (‘Lehrbuch der Diathermie’), after which diathermy became an increasingly popular in the treatment of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions as well as for pain relief.
Although the heating effects of high frequency currents were clearly observable, exactly how the heat was generated was a matter of some conjecture.
This current also increases bodily heat, almost always showing a rise of from half a degree to a degree and a half in a ten-minute application. Some attribute the effect of this current to the heat it develops in the tissues. In my opinion its principal effects are due to “cellular massage.” …
The effect of auto-condensation in producing cellular massage is appreciated when we realize that the charge in the patient’s body must return back into the circuit and then alternate with one of opposite polarity, thus, first a positive and then a negative charge is carried into the body and back again. This produces a to-and-from wave that acts upon every cell in the organism.
The principle behind the heating effect of high frequency currents is better understood today. We now regard temperature as being a measure of the average kinetic energy (energy of motion) of the molecules in a substance, so anything that increases the movement of the molecules in that substance will raise its temperature.
Since electrical fields have a charge they have the potential to affect other charged particles, particularly polar molecules like water that vary in charge from one side of the molecule to the other.
If the electrical current is direct (galvanic) the molecules will align themselves with the electrical field so that their positive pole is towards the negative electrode and their negative pole is towards the one that is positive. However, if the electrical field is constantly oscillating, as it does in a high frequency alternating current, these polar molecules will be continuously rotated as they realign themselves with the changing polarity of the electrical field. This will cause the molecules to vibrate rapidly thereby raising the temperature of the substance they make up.
The effects of applying a high frequency current to body tissue will depend on the amount of heat generated. At first the tissue will be warmed but if higher temperatures are reached electrocoagulation will take place, as the proteins in the tissue denature and harden – as happens to egg white when it is cooked. If enough heat is applied, the water in the tissue may boil off resulting in electrodessication.
The medical profession generally refers to diathermy that generates heat intense enough to desiccate or coagulate body tissues – used in surgery as an alternative to a knife or scalpel – as ‘surgical diathermy’ and distinguishes this from ‘medical diathermy’ which employs larger electrodes so that the heat is spread out over a wider area to gently warm tissues rather than destroy them.
Surgical diathermy: desiccates or coagulates body tissues.
Medical diathermy: warms tissues rather than destroying them.
When the term diathermy is used in Beauty Culture it usually refers to what the medical profession would see as a type of ‘surgical diathermy’. Diathermy treatments of this type – also known a thermolysis – were used from the 1930s onwards in Beauty Culture as an alternative to electrolysis for the permanent removal of superfluous hair, spider veins (telangiectasia), acne, warts, moles and other skin blemishes.
However, high frequency currents have also been used to warm the body in a way that was similar to that used in ‘medical diathermy’. The first use of diathermy in this manner in Beauty Culture was Elizabeth Arden’s Vienna Youth Mask, introduced in 1928. It was believed to have a rejuvenating effect through stimulating the circulation of blood through the facial tissues.
See also: Arden Vienna Youth Mask
Although there are some salons today that offer warming diathermy treatments as a ‘circulation booster’ during a facial, these are not typical.
A more common and more recent use of ‘medical diathermy’ in Beauty Culture has been in treatments for cellulite. Although generally combined with other procedures rather than used in isolation, the deep heat produced by diathermy has been claimed to enhance collagen production; increase blood circulation through vasodilation; improve lymphatic drainage of trapped fatty deposits; and even break down fat cells.
Updated: 29th March 2015
Eberhart, N. M. (1911). A working manual of high frequency currents. Chicago: New Medicine Publishing Company.
Guy, A. W. (2011). Biological effects of electromagnetic radiation. Retrieved December 12, 2014, from
Cumberbatch, E. P. (1937). Diathermy including diathermotherapy and other forms of medical and surgical electrothermic treatment (3rd ed.). Great Britain: William Heinemann (Medical Books) Ltd.