Tens vs. Ems

You've probably heard a great deal of information about TENS and EMS (electronic muscle stimulator) machines. If you are like most, you have some questions about what the difference is between these two devices. First, you need to know there is a big difference between the two. So, if you are considering TENS vs EMS, understand what each is designed to do and when you should use over the other.

Are TENS and EMS Units the Same Thing?

The simple answer is no. TENS and EMS are not the same thing. They are two different machines used for entirely different applications. TENS is used to relieve pain while EMS is for muscle growth and athletic training. If you suffer from chronic nerve or muscle pain, you might have heard that a TENS or EMS unit could provide you with non-addictive, drug-free relief. While TENS and EMS units are powerful therapeutic solutions, only TENS is used strictly for pain therapy. EMS machines are used for rehabilitation of muscles after injury, and for ahtletic training, not solely for pain relief. Generally speaking, EMS is used for therapeutic muscle stimulation and growth, and TENS is used to relieve pain symptoms.


It's also important to understand that these units don't function the same way. TENS uses electrical currents to confuse pain signals which in essence diverts pain from being "felt". This is a pain relieving function. EMS sends an electrical signal to your muscles to cause a contraction for the purpose of exercising and building muscles. It's the same electric signal your brain would send to your muscles to make them contract. Knowing what sets these two therapy devices apart will help you decide if you should choose a TENS unit or an EMS unit. It also will help you understand if you should buy a TENS EMS combination machine which can not only ease pain but build muscles therapeutically to prevent pain in the future.

What is EMS (Electric Muscle Stimulation)
EMS or Electric Muscle Stimulation is the process of causing muscle contractions using an external electrical charge or pulse usually created by an EMS machine or device. How does EMS work? The electrodes are placed on the skin over the muscle that you want to exercise. An electrical charge is sent into the muscle charging the muscle's fibers and causing a muscle contraction. This is the same action 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.

What an EMS Unit is Used For

Muscle Stimulation

EMS stands for electronic muscle stimulation. These units are designed to provide relief by stimulating the muscles themselves. Electric Muscle Stimulation is used in therapy to treat swelling and inflammation that can put a strain on both the muscles themselves and their supporting joints. By reducing inflammation, these units help to restore function and prevent joints from becoming dislocated by strained muscles. Many physical therapists and doctors recommend EMS units to their patients for muscular pain relief. They can reduce muscle spasms and edema, which are leading causes of muscle pain, discomfort and loss of function. They are also used in clinical and home settings to encourage greater healing by stimulating blood flow and improving range of motion. EMS units are sometimes used to help stimulate local blood circulation. That's because they're often able to ease muscle tension and to reduce stiffness in joints and muscles that can cause restrictions in motion. EMS units are particularly helpful for increasing blood circulation in the back and neck because these areas tend to suffer from more tension than the rest of the body. You might use an EMS unit if:

  • you suffer from muscle spasms,
  • have poor blood circulation,
  • have suffered from muscle atrophy due to disuse,
  • your muscles need to be stimulated and re-educated,
  • your muscles are weak and lack tone,
  • you've lost range of motion due to an injury or illness, or
  • you've recently had a surgery and doctors want to prevent venous thrombosis in your lower legs.

What a TENS Unit Does

Tens Back Pain Treatment

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. These units are designed to provide relief by sending comforting, non-painful impulses through the skin to the nerve or nerves below. This electronic stimulation often reduces or eliminates the pain that an individual feels due to a nerve disorder or chronic health condition.

What is Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation or TENS?

Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation or TENS is a pain therapy that uses electrical impulses to relive pain naturally without the use of drugs or narcotics (non-narcotic painkiller). The electrical pulses stimulate nerve endings and the skin to create endorphins and confuse pain signals. Though theories as to how it works differ in each the pain is relieved naturally by electronic stimulation. TENS units use the stimulating pulses to distract your mind and help prevent pain signals from reaching your brain. These units can also stimulate your body to produce its own natural painkillers known as endorphins, these natural feel-good chemicals are essential to pain relief and mood enhancement for those who suffer from painful chronic conditions. Most TENS units offer a variety of modes and programs so that therapy can be targeted to an individual's needs. It's easy to adjust the modes on these units for maximum pain relief. However, it's important to remember that the level of pain relief varies according to the individual and the condition from which they suffer. You might use a TENS unit if:

  • you have acute or chronic pain,
  • have pain after a surgery,
  • suffer from post-operative incision pain,
  • have regular migraines or tension headaches,
  • you've suffered from sports or activity injuries that cause chronic discomfort,
  • you suffer from arthritis,
  • you have tendonitis or bursitis,
  • you have cancer pain,
  • you suffer from pain from wound healing, or
  • you're pregnant and are looking for alternative pain control methods for labor and delivery.


Which Unit Should You Choose?

Deciding between a TENS and EMS unit can be difficult. If you're not sure if your pain is caused primarily by muscle or nerve problems, talk with your doctor or physical therapist. These professionals should be able to direct you towards the best unit to help control pain. Many patients know that a TENS unit is right for them because they already receive this type of stimulation at a physical therapist's office. Don't hesitate to ask your physical therapist what type of machines they use to help you. If you currently take medications for nerve pain, a TENS unit is also likely a better choice than an EMS unit. If you're currently taking medication to target muscle pain, stiffness or spasms, an EMS unit is likely a better choice than a TENS unit. These types of units are also a good choice if a masseuse, physical therapist or chiropractor has remarked that your pain may be caused by muscle tension. In some cases, individuals suffer from chronic pain that involves both the nerves and the muscles. Many of these individuals can find relief from combination units that offer both TENS and EMS capabilities. These lightweight combo units are designed to provide the best in therapeutic solutions for individuals who suffer from ongoing pain or chronic health conditions. The bottom line is that it's important to understand the condition that causes your pain before choosing between a TENS or EMS unit. If you're not sure what the underlying cause of your pain is, consult your doctor or a pain management professional. Understanding what causes your pain will help you make the best treatment decisions possible no matter your situation.