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Professionally endorsed

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TENS And EMS Therapy: What Conditions Can It Treat?

A large and small wing iTENS electrode and refill gel pads

When it comes to pain management and muscle rehabilitation, there are several options available. In particular, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) and Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) have grown in popularity as non-invasive forms of electrotherapy. TENS and EMS therapy are suitable for treating a wide range of conditions. TENS therapy helps relieve aches from chronic and acute pain conditions like arthritis and sports injuries. Meanwhile, EMS helps patients with post-stroke complications and paralysis.

TENS and EMS machines both deliver electrical currents to the body using electrodes. These electrical pulses stimulate nerves and muscles, respectively. Using TENS enables individuals to achieve temporary pain relief. Meanwhile, EMS helps with muscle strength and toning. These medical devices are available for home use. However, it is best to consult a medical professional before using them. This article will present what EMS and TENS therapy is, what they treat, how they work, and their safety guidelines.

What is TENS and EMS Therapy, and What Can it Treat

TENS and EMS therapy are two forms of electrotherapy that send electric impulses through electrodes. TENS is primarily used for pain relief. It uses high and low-frequency stimulation to induce natural pain relief. While TENS does not directly treat the cause of the pain, it provides temporary relief for different conditions.

TENS is effective for acute pain conditions, such as sports injuries, postoperative pain, and various body aches. Many people use TENS to alleviate knee painshoulder pain, and menstrual pain. Moreover, many people use it for chronic pain conditions. This includes arthritis, which causes joint pain and stiffness. It is also effective on diabetic neuropathy, which may cause nerve pain and numbness in the legs, hands, and feet.

Meanwhile, EMS is mainly focused on muscle strengthening and reducing atrophy. It helps patients who are suffering from paralysis and post-stroke complications. In addition, it aids many individuals with athletic training. Some use EMS to warm up before their routine. Some also use it after they train to relax tense muscles.

Advantages Over Other Treatment Methods

  • Non-invasive: electrodes are externally applied, so there is no need for invasive techniques during treatment. This removes the risks of infections and other complications.
  • Convenient: many use these machines at home and in various locations. This removes the hassle of going to medical facilities.
  • Drug-free: does not require medication to take effect within the body. This allows users to avoid the adverse side effects associated with drugs.
  • Increases mobility: reduces inflammation through endorphins and increases blood flow through the massage-like effect of high-frequency stimulation.
  • Promotes muscle growth: EMS activates muscle fibres and improves protein synthesis.

A person placing a large iTENS electrode on the lower back

How TENS and EMS Therapy Works

TENS and EMS therapy work by stimulating nerves and muscles, respectively. When using TENS machines, users may adjust the intensity, frequency, and pulse-width settings of the TENS device. This allows them to customise their therapy session for their condition. In addition, they may select preset program modes for additional convenience.

Using high-frequency stimulation triggers spinal nerve cells to block pain signals from reaching the brain. This is the mechanism suggested in the Gate Control Theory of Pain. Meanwhile, low-frequency stimulation triggers the release of endorphins. These build up to reduce the pain in the area. In addition, endorphins improve moods.

On the other hand, EMS devices use high-frequency electrical impulses to penetrate the muscle fibres. It causes involuntary muscle contractions that can help build muscle strength and aid muscle healing. Furthermore, it may stimulate areas that are not commonly reached by exercise. Thus, it is often used for rehabilitation and building muscle mass. In addition, many use it for cosmetic muscle toning to show a more sculpted physique.

Is There a Difference Between Nerve and Muscle Stimulation

There is a difference between nerve and muscle stimulation. While both use electric currents, they serve different purposes. Nerve stimulation targets the nerves in the body. This is mainly done for pain relief. Moreover, machines use lower settings to achieve this.

On the other hand, muscle stimulation involves targeting key muscle groups. It is often done to improve muscle strength and promote muscle healing and recovery. EMS machines tend to use higher settings to achieve this. In addition, muscle stimulation is often used during physical therapy to help rehabilitate muscles. Meanwhile, the goal of TENS machines is to alleviate aches.

An elderly woman reading a book while using an iTENS electrode on her arm

Safety Guidelines for TENS and EMS Therapy

Although TENS and EMS therapy do not require medical supervision, it is ideal to consult health professionals before using electrotherapy devices. Some conditions react negatively to electrical stimulation. Thus, people will benefit if doctors or physical therapists assess the health condition of the individual before using either therapy. In addition, the user may read the manual provided by the device manufacturer to further ensure safety.

Proper electrode placement is crucial for EMS and TENS therapy. Individuals may check a pad placement chart or guide to ensure they place the electrode pads in the correct areas. Generally, people place TENS pads near or on the origin of the pain. Meanwhile, individuals place EMS electrodes on key muscle groups.

Users must exercise caution and avoid sensitive areas. This includes the spinal cord, throat, chest, and top of the head. Furthermore, they must not place adhesive pads on irritated, infected, or broken skin. Additionally, people must not exceed the prescribed time for these machines. Otherwise, it may cause adverse effects. Lastly, do not use these units near water.

When to Seek Medical Help

It is vital to stay alert during any electrotherapy session. This enables the user to take action if they experience unpleasant sensations. Electrotherapy should not cause worsening pain. Thus, if this starts to occur during the therapy session, it indicates an underlying health condition. To diagnose this, the individual must consult a medical professional.

Furthermore, some may experience skin irritation and continuous muscle spasms after the session. These are often mild and will fade shortly. However, if these effects become severe and persistent, the user should seek medical help. Lastly, overstimulation may cause muscle or nerve damage. Users should seek medical attention for this.


TENS and EMS therapy help many people in hospitals and pain clinics. Nowadays, people may purchase personal devices for convenient use in various locations. People may use TENS to relieve chronic and acute pain from injuries and health conditions like arthritis. Meanwhile, EMS can help people with paralysis regain muscle strength and increase muscle growth. Using electrical currents to target the origin of pain or muscle groups, people can effectively use these electrotherapy devices for their benefit.

However, it is essential to consult a healthcare professional to ensure safety. Moreover, individuals should read the manual provided by the device manufacturer to understand how to use their units. In addition, people must not confuse these two devices. There is a difference between muscle and nerve stimulation. Improper use of either device may cause adverse effects that need medical attention. Thus, people should remain alert while using electrotherapy units.

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