Electronic stimulation of the nerves or muscles can help alleviate acute or chronic pain and some other symptoms, including those related to arthritis, menstrual cycles and some injuries. Find out more about TENS and EMS treatments, including the difference between these two approaches, below. 

What is TENS and EMS?

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. EMS stands for electronic muscle stimulation. Both are treatments that involve using small machines to send electrical signals to specific areas of your body. The goal of these treatments is usually to provide pain relief or assist with muscle recovery after an injury or surgery.

How Do TENS and EMS Units Work?

With both TENS and EMS treatments, thin wires known as leads are connected to a small machine. The machine is typically small enough to sit on a table or may be handheld. The other end of each lead is attached to an electrode.

The electrodes are in the form of adhesive pads that can stick to skin. They’re placed specifically to promote electric signal to certain parts of the body depending on where pain is being felt or what injury or condition is being treated.

The TENS or EMS machine is turned on, and signal is sent through the leads and electrodes to the body. The intensity of the signal can be dialed up or down depending on the treatment requirements. The same is true for frequency, which is how quickly the electrical signals are coming.

Are you a good candidate for TENS and EMS?

  • Positive

    You have pain related to arthritis, fibromyalgia, menstrual cycles and some injuries.

  • Positive

    You have pain or injured muscles after an injury or surgery.

  • Negative

    You’re pregnant, have heart issues or have epilepsy.

  • Negative

    You rely on electronic medical devices, such as pacemakers.

Frequently asked questions

How Effective Is TENS or EMS Treatment?

TENS machines have a long history of use in traditional medical applications. While each person’s experience is unique, many patients have experienced pain relief by using these devices.

Evidence also indicates that EMS treatments can help drive more positive results when used in early interventions following certain types of surgeries or injuries to specific muscles. 


How Long Does TENS or EMS Treatment Take?

How long individual treatments with a TENS unit take depends on individual needs and medical provider recommendations. In an office setting, TENS treatments may take 10 to 40 minutes. If a doctor prescribes TENS unit use at home, someone might use it up to 40 minutes at a time a few times a day — or per their doctor’s orders.

TENS treats the symptom of pain. So, if the cause of the pain isn’t or can’t be treated, TENS might be required long-term to help alleviate pain.

EMS treatments can take around 25 minutes on average and are performed in the office or in outpatient settings by physical therapists or other qualified providers. Usually EMS is only used in the early stages of recovery and is typically not required after the relevant muscles have strengthened and regained a certain amount of functionality. How long this period actually is depends on the severity of the muscle injury or damage and how well the person tolerates recovery. It can range from a few weeks to a few months on average. 


What Are the Potential Side Effects of TENS or EMS Use?

In general, both of these treatments are considered to be safe, especially when administered under the care of or following the orders of doctors, nurses, physical therapists or other qualified medical practitioners. However, there are some potential side effects.

Irritation at the site of the electrode is the most common side effect and is more common for those who have sensitive skin. Because the treatments involve electrical signals, they might also cause issues with pacemakers or other types of electronic medical devices.

Individuals who rely on electronic medical devices, are pregnant or who have potential heart issues or epilepsy should always discuss their conditions with medical staff before using TENS or EMS treatments. 


What Are TENS and EMS Units Used for?

The main difference between TENS and EMS units is how and when they’re used. TENS units are typically used to treat pain. The treatment might be conducted in hospitals, physical therapy offices and doctors’ offices, and at-home TENS units are also an option. TENS therapy may be used during chiropractic visits as well.

Chronic or acute pain caused by a variety of conditions might be treated with TENS units. Some common conditions that TENS might be used for include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Severe menstrual pain
  • Arthritis
  • Bursitis
  • Tendinitis
  • Some types of headaches
  • Pain associated with some chronic conditions

EMS units, on the other hand, are used as a physical therapy and sports rehab tool. The electrodes are attached to specific muscle groups, and the electrical signal is used to create a muscle contraction. This can help build up strength and muscle functionality in an area that’s experienced injury or deconditioning.

An example of EMS use could be for rehabbing a knee after a surgery. The EMS may be used to help jump-start muscle strengthening and growth. If someone had a knee surgery due to long-standing knee pain, it’s likely that the muscle would be deconditioned as well as damaged from the surgery.


What Is Recovery after TENS/EMS Treatment Like?

When used properly under the care of a medical provider, TENS and EMS treatments don’t tend to lead to any need for recovery.

Because EMS may be used as part of a program to rehab an injured or deconditioned muscle area, individuals might experience some soreness afterward as they would with any other type of rehab or strength-training exercise. Physical therapists or other providers can offer some tips on mitigating soreness, which might include over-the-counter medications, rest or even ice or heat to the impacted area.


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