If you’re shopping around for the best TENS unit, you might have noticed EMS devices also popping up in the results.
TENS and EMS units are both e-stim devices that deliver low voltage electrical impulses to stimulate nerves. However their uses are quite different.
Below you’ll discover the differences between TENS and EMS, so you can find the stimulation device that’s right for you.
What is a TENS unit?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. The device emits a stimulating pulse that awakens the nerves, and blocks pain signals from being sent to the brain.
If you’re looking for a good all-round TENS machine, then the TechCare Plus 24 is one to consider. After reviewing the tool in detail, we found it offers great features and power, at a very competitive price.
A TENS unit is sometimes referred to as a TNS (transcutaneous nerve stimulation) machine or EPM (electric pulse massager).
What is a TENS unit used for?
TENS devices are primarily used for pain relief.
Effective for both acute and chronic pain, TENS unit benefits include:
- Back Pain
What is an EMS unit?
EMS stands for electrical muscle stimulation. The device sends signals to your muscles to make them contract. It essentialy mimics the action potential that comes from your central nervous system.
PowerDot 2.0 Smart Muscle Stimulator is an EMS machine worth considering. Controlled through your smartphone, it’s the secret weapon of many professional athletes.
Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) is also known by the names: neuromuscular electrical Stimulation (NMES), electromyostimulation, e-stim, and stim.
What is an EMS unit used for?
EMS devices are effective for muscle building, as strength is developed through the process of the muscles contracting then relaxing.
Here are a number of benefits of EMS, that show the ways this repetitive motion can help the body:
- Muscle Strengthening
- Muscle Rehabilitation
- Relief from Muscle Cramps
- Improving Athletic Performance
- Accelerated Recovery from Injury
- Retraining Muscles
Are TENS and EMS units effective?
There is research to show that both TENS and EMS are effective for the different functions they provide.
For example, doctors recommend TENS units for the treatment of both acute and chronic pain.
The Arthritis Foundation, an online community for sufferers of the condition, also endorses the therapy:
TENS helps acute and chronic pain. TENS has been shown to relieve osteoarthritis (OA) pain and reduce the need for pain medications.
Are both therapies safe to use?
Both TENS and EMS machines are considered safe to use, if operated correctly.
However you should always speak to your doctor or another medical professional before starting to use one.
The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, report that most people who use TENS do so without experiencing any side effects. In a very rare number of cases, burns and irritations of the skin have been reported.
There are also certain groups for who TENS can be harmful, such as those with epilepsy or women in the early stages of pregnancy.
In terms of EMS, the frequencies used are higher. Professor Dr. Stefan Knecht, Chief Physician at St. Mauritius Therapy Clinic in Germany promotes correct usage:
If used incorrectly, EMS can cause muscle damage. When this occurs, small muscle particles are released into the blood stream and can damage the kidneys.
Do TENS and EMS have FDA approval?
TENS and EMS units are regulated by the FDA. This means that manufacturers must comply with certain requirements to be able to sell their devices.
Tools that have not obtained FDA approval are illegal. This is to protect you from using an unregulated device that could cause injury to you or others in your household.
Should I choose a TENS or an EMS unit?
Before choosing which one is right for you, you should first ask yourself, what are you hoping to gain?
For example if you’re suffering with discomfort in your lower back, then a TENS device would be best. That’s because it would interrupt those pain signals being sent from your back to your brain.
If you need to build muscle, to improve your athletic performance, then an EMS unit would be better. The muscle contractions that happen when you use the unit can help to build strength and tone.
Some conditions would benefit from both TENS and EMS, for example if you were recovering from a muscle injury. EMS could help to speed up your rehabilitation, while TENS therapy might be useful for helping you cope with the associated pain.
Take a look at the table below that lists common conditions and suggests the most effective electrical stimulation therapy:
|Relieves Back Pain|
|Improved Athletic Performance|
|Anxiety and Depression|
Should I choose a unit that offers both TENS and EMS?
You might notice when trying to find the perfect TENS or EMS machine, that a number of units offer both therapies.
They do tend to cost a little more, but you get both the pain relief and muscle building advantages.
For example, if you’re someone that loves working out and wants to improve their performance, you can make the most of the EMS function.
However if you’re also someone who will then suffer for your workout the next day, through back or neck pain, the features of a TENS machine will be beneficial.
There are many units out there to choose from, with iReliev’s TENS EMS combination device being a particularly good choice.
Is an EMS unit the same as a TENS unit?
No, while EMS and TENS units can look identical, there are key differences.
EMS units focus on muscle stimulation for rehabilitation, strengthening and recovery. TENS units target nerves for pain relief and can be a powerful natural pain management alternative.
Some combination devices offer both TENS and EMS capabilities in a single unit.
Do TENS and EMS units feel the same?
Both units deliver an electrical current, so the tingling sensation will likely feel very similar.
EMS devices use higher frequencies than TENS units so you might feel the impact more. However to someone not used to using an e-stim device, you likely wouldn’t spot a difference between the two.
Is EMS stronger than TENS?
Higher frequencies are used in EMS devices, compared to a TENS machine.
Strength is typically measured in terms of intensity, which is expressed in milliamps (mA).
However, frequency, measured in hertz (Hz), is another parameter that plays a role in the overall effectiveness of the therapy.
Lower frequencies (2-10 Hz) are often used for endorphin release and pain relief in TENS therapy, while higher frequencies (50-100 Hz) can be employed for muscle contraction and strengthening in EMS therapy.
When adjusting the settings on TENS or EMS devices, it is essential to consider both intensity and frequency to achieve the desired therapeutic effect.
What would the milliamps of a TENS unit typically be, compared to an EMS unit?
For TENS therapy, which focuses on pain relief by stimulating nerves, lower intensity levels are often used, typically between 10 and 50 mA. EMS sessions require higher intensity levels, often between 20 and 80 mA, to elicit the desired muscle contractions.
You can however get more powerful TENS units such as the TENS 7000, which delivers up to 100 mA of intensity.
Do chiropractors use TENS or EMS?
Some chiropractors use TENS and EMS as complementary therapies.
In chiropractic settings, both TENS and EMS work alongside other therapies to address various conditions like chronic low back pain, muscle injuries, and tension headaches.
The choice to use either electrotherapy depends on the chiropractor’s preference and the patient’s specific needs.
Find the Best Device
Here at The Good Body we’ve long been advocates of TENS therapy.
After testing many devices (for the purposes of research and on our own pain!) we’ve compiled a list of highly-rated TENS units on the market today.
The round-up includes a broad mix of devices, including a powerful tool for well under $50…
- NHS (2022). TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) [Online]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/transcutaneous-electrical-nerve-stimulation-tens/ [Accessed 23 May 2023]. ↩
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration (2017). Electronic Muscle Stimulators [Online]. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/medical-devices/consumer-products/electronic-muscle-stimulators [Accessed 23 May 2023]. ↩