It can be hard to keep up with the latest advances in medical science or always to know which type of treatment would work best for your condition.
Many today are also seeking alternative forms of therapy that are non-invasive and do not involve taking medications.
Electrotherapy is becoming a popular form of alternative treatment because it provides significant results without a lot of side effects.
But which type of electrotherapy is right for you? Should you buy a TENS or and EMS unit?
What does each do, and which is best for you? Keep reading to learn more about these two forms of electrical stimulation to determine which is the best option for your health needs.
What is the Difference Between TENS and EMS?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and electric muscle stimulator (EMS) devices have a great deal in common, not only in how they work but also in what they can treat.
But there are some significant differences between these forms of electrotherapy.
Both use various frequencies and intensities of electrical pulses to stimulate various tissues within the body.
Both TENS and EMS devices require the use of electrodes placed directly on the skin in the area that requires treatment.
TENS and EMS devices can be adjusted using controllers that adjust the intensity, width, and frequency of the electrical signal being sent to the electrodes, as well.
While TENS devices emit low- and high-frequency pulses of current around 100 milliamps, EMS units cycle electrical signals of various intensities that range from one to 130 Mh.
These differences in amplitude and frequency result in different physiological reactions, which we will explore in more detail below.
How Does TENS Work?
TENS therapy uses electrodes that are attached to the skin to deliver small electrical impulses to the area in need of treatment.
The electricity produced by these probes target the nerves in area, and these signals disrupt and confuse the electrical signals that are causing pain.
By stopping this message and electrical pathway from being activated, it can provide temporary relief from all sorts of pain, including chronic and acute symptoms.
TENS also helps to stimulate the release of endorphins, which are hormones that help to reduce pain, as well.
TENS therapy can affect only the nerves in the localized area where the electrical stimulation is applied.
It does not penetrate deeply into the body, and the results can wear off over time, requiring additional treatment.
Some people build a tolerance to the stimulation provided by a TENS device, which means they need higher intensity or frequency over time to achieve the same result.
The purpose of TENS therapy is to stimulate nerve cells.
It is not effective at addressing other types of cells.
Its primary goal is to treat and relieve pain, but it is less effective at addressing other health concerns.
How Does EMS Work?
Electrical muscle stimulators, which are referred to as EMS or e-stim, focus on nerve cells but for a different purpose than TENS.
The purpose of EMS therapy is to stimulate muscle contractions using electrical impulses that may cause either a slow-twitch or fast-twitch response to the muscle fibers.
Depending on the frequency of the pulses, you may experience numerous benefits for your recovery or performance.
When you cause a muscle to contract, it builds its strength over time.
Your brain naturally sends electrical impulses that result in muscle contraction, and EMS devices mimic this response to promote specific muscle contraction by targeting motor neurons.
EMS devices can overcome various neural inhibitions that may be limiting your ability to develop strength and power or to enable your muscles to grow.
Those who use these devices often do so to improve fitness, enhance athletic performance, and overcome disorders that may result in muscle atrophy or loss of mobility.
Athletes commonly use EMS to enhance their regular training regimen.
Whereas TENS is used to treat pain and relieve symptoms, EMS is focused on muscle development.
While athletes are a prime audience for EMS, these devices are also commonly used by physical therapists for use during various kinds of rehabilitation therapy.
Any pain relief that is accomplished would be a side effect of building stronger muscles.
Health Benefits of TENS
TENS therapy is most prominently used to treat various types of pain.
This application is its most significant benefit.
Pain that results from an injury or surgery, pain that is chronic, or pain that is a side effect of a medical condition can usually be treated very effectively with TENS therapy.
Most people with pain use medications to help relieve their symptoms, but these drugs have many side effects and may also cause dependency if taken for an extended period.
To avoid the adverse reactions of narcotics and other pain medications, using non-invasive treatments like TENS offers a safer alternative, especially for those with chronic pain.
TENS units are small and portable, which means they are easy to use.
Once you know how to apply the electrodes and adjust the settings, you can use a TENS device at home to help treat your pain.
When you live with pain all the time, your quality of life can be significantly influenced.
Depression and anxiety are common in those who live with pain, so using a TENS device to relieve your suffering can help with other secondary symptoms, such as these, as well.
TENS therapy can help with all sorts of acute and chronic pain, including the effects of migraine headaches, which are notoriously hard to treat.
Those with a missing limb also sometimes find relief from phantom limb pain when they stimulate their nerves using a TENS device.
TENS therapy can even help with other symptoms, including improving the function of your respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Health Benefits of EMS
Because EMS is meant to manual contract muscles, its primary health benefits are to strengthen muscles, improve their performance and growth, and prevent muscle atrophy.
By increasing muscle contractions, these devices also stimulate blood circulation to the area, which can help reduce inflammation and other symptoms, as well.
By forcing a contraction and then stopping the stimulation, EMS devices can also relax muscles and treat muscle soreness.
The most common use of EMS is to promote muscle performance, but these devices need to be used in combination with strength training, other exercises, and a healthy diet in order for them to accomplish this goal.
You will not be able to just use EMS therapy and end up with a fit body.
Depending on the Hertz level you use, you can activate different muscle fibers, which can help with various activities, including stability, stamina, and explosiveness.
When used in the physical therapy setting, the benefits of EMS are even more significant.
For example, these tools can be used to strengthen muscles and prevent muscle atrophy in those who are partially or totally immobilized.
EMS can also help to test the muscular and neural function to determine underlying problems in various situations.
As a tool for helping muscles recover from exertion, it can be effectively used by just about anyone who is engaged in physical therapy to treat an injury, trauma, or other condition.
Precautions for Using TENS and EMS
The use of both TENS and EMS are generally considered to be quite safe and have fewer adverse effects compared to more conventional treatments, including medications.
However, there are a few precautions you should be aware of when using any type of electrotherapy, including TENS and EMS.
Precautions for Using TENS
Because TENS units emit electrical pulses, they can interfere with the function of implanted devices that also use electricity.
This includes pacemakers, cochlear implants, and pumps that continuously administer medications.
If you have an electrical implant, you should avoid placing your electrodes over the top of the device or in the general vicinity.
TENS use for extended periods is not recommended for those with pacemakers.
You can develop a tolerance for TENS treatment, which can result in reduced effects over time.
For those that extensively use this sort of therapy, you may notice that you require higher intensities or frequencies to get the same results.
Talk with your factor or physical therapist if this occurs.
TENS use could pose a threat to unborn children, so women who are pregnant should avoid applying TENS to the torso, abdomen, or pelvis.
Those with lesions, scars, and other skin conditions may find that applying the TENS electrodes over these areas can result in increased pain.
Damaged skin of any kind can change how the electrical signals are transmitted and result in skin irritation, increased pain, and other problems.
TENS therapy is not recommended for those with epilepsy unless it is performed under medical supervision.
TENS therapy targets pain, and how you experience pain may differ from day to day.
There may not be a standard dosage or therapy schedule for your at-home use of TENS, and the best intensity and frequency that works for you may change regularly.
You should talk with your doctor or physical therapist about the appropriate settings for your TENS machine at home and the recommendations for its use, which you should follow.
Some may experience skin irritation from the pad sites, but this is rare and usually very minor.
Precautions for Using EMS
Many of the same precautions that you would take with TENS apply to EMS.
Because these are both electrical devices, they can both interfere with implants like pacemakers.
If you have a condition that would become worse due to the stimulation of cell proliferation, such as cancer, you should avoid using EMS.
EMS electrodes should not be placed near reflex centers, including around the heart or along any of the primary nerves that serve the heart, lungs, or parasympathetic system.
There is little understanding of how EMS could affect an unborn child, so you should not place electrodes on your abdomen, pelvis, or torso.
Never place an EMS electrode over an active blood clot or deep vein thrombosis.
You should also avoid any known areas with severe arterial insufficiency.
Avoid using EMS near open wounds, broken or damaged skin, localized infections, or where you may have heat sensitivity.
If you have areas of impaired sensation or nerve damage, do not use an EMS electrode near it.
You should also avoid placing them over superficial metal implants such as surgical staples.
Those who could be at risk for problems from EMS include anyone with severe peripheral vascular disease, a blood clotting disorder, atrial fibrillation, or impaired cognition.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation targets the nerves that deliver pain signals, disrupting their messages, and stopping the signals that give you pain.
Electric muscle stimulators target the motor neurons that communicate with your muscle tissue and stimulate muscle contractions that can strengthen your overall muscle tone and performance.
TENS and EMS are both great at what they do, and each device serves a distinctly different purpose.
Those with pain will benefit most from using a TENS device, while those with muscle problems or who are looking to enhance their workouts and recovery would do well to invest in an EMS device.
These two forms of electrotherapy are effective at accomplishing their recommended goals while providing safe treatment for you in your own home.
Richard Hoover is a PEMF expert and content contributor to PEMF Advisor. With a bachelor’s degree in physics and multiple certifications in natural health programs, he is one of the best PEMF experts around.