TENS vs EMS: Which Should I Choose?

Has your doctor or physical therapist spoken to you about looking for a TENS unit? Or perhaps a friend has mentioned how powerful they can be and you’re interested to find out for yourself?

With so many products on the market it can be difficult to understand the jargon. You’ve probably come across TENS and EMS devices, and you might be struggling to understand how they differ.

We’ve explained the differences below to help you choose the electronic stimulation device that’s right for you:

What is the difference between TENS and EMS?

First the similarities, both TENS and EMS units deliver low voltage electric impulses to stimulate nerves. However their uses are quite different.

The function of a TENS unit is to help stimulate the sensory nerve endings, the rationale being that the stimulation keeps pain signals from reaching the brain.

On the flip side, an EMS unit causes the muscles to contract, by mimicking the action potential that comes from the central nervous system.

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Did You Know?

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.

What is a TENS unit used for?

TENS units are used for the relief of chronic and acute pain, and relied on by those suffering from a range of conditions including:

  • Arthritis
  • Back pain
  • Carpal tunnel syndrome
  • Foot pain
  • Labor pain
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Sciatica

There are a host of benefits, so if you’re shopping for a device and want to compare features then take a look at our detailed guide.

Did You Know?

A TENS unit is sometimes referred to as a TNS (transcutaneous nerve stimulation) machine or EPM (electric pulse massager).

What is an EMS unit used for?

EMS units are used for a number of different functions, examples include:

  • Muscle strengthening
  • Rehabilitation purposes
  • Preventing disuse muscle atrophy
  • Increasing local blood circulation
  • Relaxation of muscles
  • Cosmetic muscle toning

Did You Know?

EMS stands for electrical muscle stimulation.

Learn more about what EMS can do for your muscles, or read reviews of EMS devices before you make your decision.

TENS or EMS: What’s right for me?

The two machines have completely different purposes so it’s imperative that you choose the correct device.

If you’re looking for something to help build muscle as part of a training program then you should invest in an EMS unit. However if you want relief from chronic back pain, you need to start shopping for a TENS unit.

Did You Know?

Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is also known by the names: neuromuscular electrical Stimulation (NMES), electromyostimulation, e-stim, and stim.

Should I buy a TENS and EMS combination unit?

There are a number of combination machines on the market that offer both TENS and EMS.

You can get the best of both worlds with a combination device. They tend to be a little higher in price but do offer great versatility.

An example of somebody who could benefit from a TENS EMS combination unit is an active sportsperson who works at a desk and suffers from lower back pain.

They would be able to use the TENS function to relieve their back pain and the EMS settings could be used to help strengthen their muscles as part of their training program.

A combination unit would be perfect for anyone who wants to use both TENS and EMS. It means they only need purchase a single device, versus two separate ones.

The other advantage of having a single device is portability. People who like to take their machine on vacation, when they’re away on a business trip, visiting friends, etc. only have to carry one device.

Where can I buy a TENS or EMS unit?

While some TENS and EMS units are prescription only, there are many versions that can be bought over-the-counter (OTC).

It is however recommended that you consult the advice of a healthcare provider prior to using a TENS unit.

Want to find out more about TENS and EMS?

We have numerous articles on our site about TENS and EMS, that can help you learn more about the differences and work out what’s right for you.

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