How Electronic Muscle/Nerve Stimulation Devices Work

Elite athletes are always experimenting with new methods of recovery and performance enhancement.

Many methods have come and gone over the years, few have withstood the test of time. Now, electronic stimulation is making wave in fitness communities. Devices deliver impulses with skin electrodes placed directly onto the required area. The frequency of these impulses determines which nerves are stimulated, and designate the treatment as TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) or EMS (Electrical muscle stimulation).


The basic idea behind TENS is to target nerves for pain relief.

Their stimulation supposedly encourages the production of the endorphins and anti-inflammatories, similar to exercise. These low frequency treatments are marketed for chronic pain.

More severe pain requires higher frequencies. These stimulate sensory nerve endings and blocks the pain signals themselves. These treatments are used for sports injuries and even conditions like labor pain.


EMS machines target muscles, with the intention of building strength and recruiting potential. They are especially useful at reversing muscle atrophy after an injury.

The pulses target motor nerves, creating a contraction cycle that loosens muscle fibers, increasing blood flow and stimulating growth.

EMS is widely used in hospitals and physical therapy clinics to treat muscular injuries and rehab paralyzed muscles. They also improve muscle tone, which is important for athletes who require a certain level of elasticity, like sprinters, and can help calm spastic muscles.


Overall electronic stimulation therapy seems like a decent tool for recovery, but the price tag is a major sticking point, with upper-end units costing between $500-$1000. Unfortunately, rigorous studies have not been performed on this method, yet it is widely used and many professional athletes are quick to tout its benefits. Part of the problem is that modern science does not yet have a complete account of muscle function/regeneration or pain, so the exact operations of EMS and TENS cannot be pinpointed. Nonetheless, if one has room in the budget or a friend with one of these machines they could be a worthy investment.

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