There is a great deal of confusion surrounding the difference between EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) and TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy. While there are similarities, there are also differences. They both have distinct goals, EMS is used for athletic training and muscle growth. Conversely, a TENS machine is used to relieve pain.
EMS and TENS machines also function in different ways. EMS units send an electrical signal to your muscles to cause them to contract. This is the same action as though you were exercising and building muscles.
An EMS machine is often used by athletes for training as well as for rehabilitation of muscles after an injury. Broadly speaking, EMS is used for therapeutic muscle stimulation and growth and not solely for pain relief.
While a TENS device also uses electrical currents, the purpose is to divert pain from you feeling it as pain signals are confused.
This quick guide can help you pick out the best device for your needs. If you want both, the good news is that most electrical stimulation devices now offer both for just a slight premium.
What is EMS and How Does It Work?
EMS stands for electrical muscle stimulation. EMS therapy is conducted by using an EMS machine or device. Electrodes are attached to the skin over the muscle you wish to exercise. This allows an electrical charge to be sent to the muscle. This causes the muscles to contract just as though you were exercising. It’s essentially a way of giving your muscles a workout as they contract. This is different from TENS therapy that does not make your muscles contract.
EMS units are typically used for:
- Toning and reshaping areas such as the thighs, abdominals, and buttocks.
- If you have lost range of motion following injury or illness.
- If your muscles are weak.
- In patients who have poor blood circulation.
- To re-educate muscles
- To prevent thrombosis in lower legs after surgery
- To treat muscle spasms.
- By athletes for muscle loosening, strengthening, and recovery
How Long and Often Can You Use an EMS Machine For?
The length of an EMS session will vary on what you are using the unit for. You might use a unit for 10-40 minutes on each area. While you won’t come to any harm it’s best to limit sessions to 60 minutes on each area to avoid muscle fatigue. You can use the device up to three times per day.
What Is a TENS Machine Used For?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Electrodes are applied to the affected area similarly to EMS devices. The device delivers impulses to the nerves below the skin. The currents are not painful and the goal of a TENS unit is to deliver non-addictive pain therapy without taking drugs.
When you use a TENS machine the pulses prevent pain signals from reaching the brain while distracting your mind. A TENS device also stimulates your body into producing endorphins. This can help to enhance mood, especially for those that suffer from ongoing chronic pain.
Typically TENS have a wide range of settings and modes for you to vary the level of pain relief according to the severity and area of the body where the pain is felt.
TENS units are most commonly used for:
- Pain from migraines and tension headaches.
- Arthritic pain
- Back pain
- Chronic pain
- Pain after surgery.
- Pain from cancer
- An alternative method of pain relief during childbirth.
- Pain caused by bursitis and tendonitis.
A TENS unit can also be used by athletes that suffer from sports injuries that cause pain and discomfort.
How Long and Often Can You Use a TENS Machine For?
A TENS session will vary according to the pain relief you are using the unit for, a typical session lasts between 20-30 minutes. Most people will feel relief from pain by then but you can continue to use the device for up to two hours. You can use the unit 2-3 times per day to manage pain.
Which One Should You Choose?
It can be difficult to know whether you should buy a TENS or an EMS unit. As a rule of thumb, if you are looking to try to heal a condition or injury, then you’ll need an EMS unit. If you are wanting to manage pain, then a TENS device could be the right choice. If you don't want to choose, you can use both with a combo device.
However, there is a crossover, as EMS units can provide pain relief as they heal. In addition, it’s not always clear to know if your pain is caused by a nerve or muscle problem. If you’ve already been having treatment with a physical therapist for your pain, then ask which type of stimulation they have been using during your treatment. Your doctor can also advise you as to whether to use TENS or EMS therapy for at-home treatment.
If you take medications that target nerve pain, then a TENS device will likely be the right device to manage your pain. Conversely, if you are taking medications that are for muscle stiffness, pain, and spasms an EMS machine will probably be the best choice.
However, many people suffer from chronic pain that affects both the nerves and muscles. In this case, you could benefit from a combination of both therapies. Again, you’ll find that many devices have both EMS and TENS programs. Additionally, most devices have pre-set programs for different conditions.
If you are in any doubt at all, speak to your doctor. You should always read the manual carefully.
2 Best EMS/TENS Machines for Fighters and Athletes
There are hundreds of EMS machines on the market, so choosing the best one for you can be a challenge. We've picked out our favorite EMS and TENS machine in this short guide. Both the devices below have both EMS and TENS therapy so you don't have to choose.
We have two options because the first option is the pricey decked out option with all the latest bells and whistles while the second option provides just the basic necessities for recovery and rehab.
PlayMakar PRO Electrical Muscle Stimulator
The PlayMaker PRO stands out from the crowd for many reasons. This impressive piece of kit features 4 different programs and 25 intensity levels. It has 4 pods and has a 10-hour battery life. The medical-grade unit is produced by a team that includes professional sportsmen who know everything you could want in an EMS/TENS device.
You can warm up more safely when using this unit. It will also allow you to recover faster so that you can train harder and manage pain.
Advocates of the PlaymakerPRO include Philadelphia 76ers’ basketball player Trey Burke. He uses the Playmaker PRO before a game or training session and afterward to recover.
The machine is good enough for professionals to use. This is why we recommend the PlayMakar PRO for those who are serious about achieving the very very best results and training hard.
The TENS 7000 is a bestseller with top reviews and over one million devices sold. The device is suitable for those managing pain associated with carpal tunnel and arthritis. It's also great for those who have neck, shoulder, knee, elbow, leg and foot pain. The device stores up to 60 sets of operation records, and has a total recorded time amounting to 999 hours.
The TENS 7000 has no celebrity endorsements like the Playmaker PRO but it’s a favorite among medical professionals.
A factor in the extraordinary sales of this product is the price. You can pick up this affordable device for less than $30.
The TENS 7000 compromises a small technical screen with two sections and four replaceable pads. The unit also comes with lead wires a 9V battery, an instruction manual, and a carry case.
Despite its low price point, the device comes with multiple therapy modes including Normal, Burst, Modulation, Strength Duration 1, and Strength Duration 2. It also has a one-year warranty.
With recommendations from health professionals, a host of functions, and sales over one million make this our top pick for a TENS machine.