TENS vs. EMS: What's the Difference Between TENS and an EMS

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You’ve probably heard about TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) and EMS (electronic muscle stimulator) devices. If you are like most, you have some questions about the difference between these two devices because there’s a big difference between both.

What’s the Difference?

TENS and EMS devices serve different purposes. However, they operate on the same principle. Both of them involve applying an electrical current to specific areas of your body.

What is TENS?

TENS is a drug-free, non-invasive therapy designed to reduce and relieve numbness in the arms, legs, and foot by applying electrical nerve stimulation to the skin's surface near the site of the pain. Combined with red light therapy can bring great wellness to the body. This method requires using a small handheld or tabletop device, known as a TENS unit, connected via thin wires to adhesive pads or conductive materials.

The conductive pads, known as electrodes, are placed directly against your skin. When the unit is turned on, the electrodes transmit low-voltage electrical signals to your body.

The frequency and intensity of these signals can be adjusted as necessary. These signals interfere with pain regulation.

A single treatment typically lasts 15 to 40 minutes. It’s not painful, but you might feel a slight tingling or warming sensation where the electrodes meet your skin.

It is important to note that TENS is not curative. This means that it will temporarily ease the pain while being used. However, it will not be used to heal injuries.

TENS machines may relieve pain caused by many conditions, including:

What is EMS?

EMS is a physical therapy and fitness technique. It is the process of causing muscle contractions using an external electrical charge or pulse. Like TENS, it involves a device that transmits electrical impulses through electrodes applied directly to your skin.

EMS tries to replicate the muscles' experience during exercise and motion. So, it is essentially exercising your muscles as if you were sending the signal for the muscle to contract yourself. This is different from TENS. TENS machines do not cause the muscle to contract. The electrical signals trigger repeated contractions (tightening) of the muscles. The contractions can be short and frequent or long and sustained.

What’s an EMS Device Used for?

EMS devices are used to start muscle contractions, otherwise known as neuromuscular re-education.

They may be found in fitness centers, as well as in physical therapy and rehabilitation clinics. Many EMS devices are also designed and sold for at-home use.

The electrical impulse from an EMS device is stronger than that from a TENS machine. An EMS device shouldn’t be used to treat pain and may cause damage to wound sites and incisions.

Safe to Use?

While both machines are generally thought to be safe, they can cause side effects. For instance, people with sensitive skin may experience irritation where the electrodes attach to your skin.

In addition, the current may be too strong for some people, causing shocks or burning sensations. These side effects are more likely with EMS units since they deliver a stronger current.

Red Light Therapy

Combining TENS with red light therapy using red and near-infrared, the results can be outstanding. TENS will relieve the muscles while both wavelengths penetrate your body's cells to act on the metabolic system. Targeting the cytochrome c oxidase in the mitochondria (the cell's powerhouse) near-infrared causes nitric oxide to dissociate and increases the cell's metabolism. More ATP (the most basic energy molecule in your body) is produced. Nitric oxide plays an important role in pain management, helping the blood vessels to widen. This lowers blood pressure and increases blood flow to the region. More blood means that there are more nutrients and oxygen available for metabolism. Increasing metabolism increases the rate of healing in the region reduces inflammation faster and provides effective pain relief.