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Should You Use TENS Units or EMS Units? What works better for pain relief?

As many as one of three Americans are victims of chronic pain. In many cases, these incurable conditions are caused by chronic pain and the source of the pain is the nerves or damaged tissue surrounding them. While the debilitating physical effects of this type of pain would seem enough, many patients also suffer from depression, with a feeling that the situation is without hope and that they are doomed to suffering its effects for the rest of their lives.

The Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator (TENS unit) and the Electronic Muscle Stimulator (EMS unit) are two electrical devices commonly use in the treatment of chronic pain. While both units use electricity to provide relief of chronic pain, they have different applications. While the TENS unit stimulates one's nerve endings, the EMS unit is used to stimulate the muscles themselves. This comparison of a TENS unit vs EMS unit can help to decide which is right for you.


Electrical stimulation of nerves for pain relief has a long history. In ancient Rome, the court physician to the Emperor Claudius reported pain relief from standing on an electrical fish for a human. Several hundred later, Benjamin Franklin invented the electreat device that used electrical stimulation to bring pain reduction. Franklin's theory was that since two objects are unable to occupy the same space simultaneously, the electrical impulses forced into the body caused the pain to leave.

While his hypothesis was flawed, Ben's electreat device was the forerunner of the modern methods of electrical pain relief including the use of the TENS unit to provide electrical stimulation of nerve endings and reduce pain. TENS units provide both high and low frequency impulses to stimulate nerve endings, with some indication that higher frequency impulses are more effective for treatment of some forms of osteoarthritis. Unfortunately, at this time, there is a lack of data documenting the effectiveness of these units in alleviating chronic pain, regardless of the frequency of the impulses supplied by the unit.

Study of the efficacy of the TENS unit is being funded by the National Institute of Health; however, at this point the study has not yet recruited for participants in the study. One of the study's objectives will be to determine the reason treatment with a TENS unit is better for some conditions causing chronic pain than others.


The microcurrent TENS unit sends electricity to increase the body's production of ATP, the substance supplying energy to the body at the cellular level. With currents as between 50 uA and 1000 uA, ATP production can be increased by a factor of five. This can help to decrease healing time and increase the reduction of pain, even that pain which is considered chronic. While lasting relief often requires regular sessions, some individual experience longer lasting pain reductions allowing the time between their sessions to be lengthened. One possible explanation is the increased circulatory action allows the lymphatic system to start clearing one's body of toxins that may have accumulated. Most users experience tingling sensations from both the conventional and microcurrent TENS units and not the more unpleasant feel of a small electrical shock.

While both these units are used in transmitting electrical signals, the EMS unit focuses on muscles instead of nerve endings. EMS units provide a cycle of stimulation and contraction followed by relaxation at intensities that vary from 1-130 Mhz to increase the flow of blood to the area, reducing inflammation and promoting muscle growth and healing. The stimulation of the muscles at the basic structure by the EMS unit results in contractions that are similar to what happens with exercise. The unit is specifically prescribed for the prevention of atrophied muscles or to retrain muscles of individuals who have suffered paralysis or partial paralysis. Additionally, the EMS may be used in other applications including improvement of range of action and circulatory action as well as the prevention of blood clots.

Combination Units

With certain conditions, the combination of both types of therapy offers the best results. Dual units can provide both TENS and EMS therapy to provide both a reduction in pain and stimulation of muscles at the cellular level. The result is better muscle tone along with a reduction in chronic pain levels. However, individuals who use these devices should be under professional care for monitoring to ensure electrodes have been placed properly and the right signal is being used. Placement of electrodes should vary with each treatment and individual who are pregnant, suffer seizures or have pacemakers installed should not use either of these units unless so advised by their doctor.