Can E-Stim Devices and TENS Machines Heal My Injury?
You’ve probably seen them at race expos or your favorite running shop. Maybe you even stopped at the booth before your big race to find out what all the fuss was about. Then the friendly sales rep attached electrodes to the skin near your knee or Achilles or other problem areas, and it delivered impulses that made the muscles contract.
You are informed that these contractions are a good thing. But before you fork over the money to take one of these electric muscle stim device or TENS machines home with you, here’s what you need to know!
What is E-Stim?
Your electric muscle stim device or TENS machines retailer was correct about one thing – Muscle contractions can be a good thing!
Controlled muscle contraction is one of the most effective treatments for reducing swelling and inflammation, which most runners will experience at some point. Studies suggest that these muscle contractions can help relieve pain, increase muscle strength, speed up recovery time, and even improve performance.
It is important to note that while they are often sold together, an E-stim device and TENS unit are different instruments that serve different purposes.
Electric stimulation therapy (E-stim) is a therapeutic treatment that employs electrical stimulation to treat muscle spasms and pain. Also referred to as neuromuscular electric stimulation (NMES), E-stim works by imitating the way the body naturally exercises its muscles.
An electric muscle stimulation device includes electrodes. These are attached to your skin, delivering electronic pulses to your motor nerves, which in turn causes the muscles to contract. These pulses control pain signals in the body, creating temporary or permanent pain relief. The pulses can also control over-excited nerves.
The electric muscle stimulation device can enhance your muscular effort by recruiting a larger amount of muscle fibers, including Type 1 slow twitch muscle fibers (which are related to endurance) and Type 2 fast twitch muscle fibers (the fibers you need for explosiveness and power).
According to research, an e-stim device does not successfully relieve all pain, however. For pain caused by muscle knots, a TENS unit may be a better bet.
Be aware that implanted pacemakers and heart defibrillators can mistake electromagnetic interference from the E-stim for a physiological signal coming from the body. Although implanted medical devices are designed to work properly around other electronic devices, there is still a possibility that their function can be altered by electromagnetic interference from muscle stimulators.
What is a TENS Unit?
A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation device (TENS units) produces an electric current to stimulate the nerves. The device works by delivering low-voltage currents into the body through electrode pads. These pads are placed over specific nerves on the body, conducting currents from the unit to the nerves for therapeutic purposes.
Ranging from about 10 Hz to 50 Hz, the frequency of the low-voltage currents emitted by a TENS unit can be turned up or down. Most TENS unit sessions last for 15 minutes or less and can be applied as often as necessary.
Unlike E-stim programs, the programs on TENS machines are not intended to cause muscle contractions. TENS machines are meant to help decrease muscle spasms caused by conditions such as arthritis, bursitis, back pain, headaches, knee pain, menstruation, recovery from surgery, tendonitis, and other running-related injuries.
TENS units deliver relief directly to the site of the pain through the release of endorphins and the control of nerves and are considered a very effective method for reducing and controlling feelings of pain. Although the level of effectiveness varies, some athletes report experiencing permanent pain relief after a few TENS unit sessions. Others experience pain relief after a prolonged period of TENS therapy.
Controlled muscle contraction is one of the most effective treatments for reducing swelling and inflammation. Studies suggest that these muscle contractions can help relieve pain, increase muscle strength, speed up recovery time, and even improve performance.
TENS machines should not be used by individuals with skin allergies, who have an adverse reaction to the electrode pads used with the units, and electrodes should never be placed on broken or irritated skin.
Anyone with defibrillators, pacemakers, infusion pumps, or similar devices should not be exposed to the electrical currents that a TENS unit delivers.
How Do I Know Which Instrument to Use?
Before that question can be answered, you should ask yourself if you are dealing with muscle soreness or muscle spasms. If you are experiencing muscle soreness from a hard workout or long run, stretching is proven to be more effective than TENS in reducing muscle soreness.
While studies have shown that TENS is not as beneficial as stretching after a demanding run, the treatment has been shown to be an effective treatment for delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). When combined with stretching, TENS has been reported to be effective in reducing pain and minimizing muscle hardness, and even results in a greater range of motion.
Although TENS units aren’t the most effective treatment for muscle issues, they do have their place. Treatments with the TENS stimulate muscle motor nerve endings that cause muscle contraction, providing relief from pain. Electric muscle stimulators are effective for warming up muscles before a run, as well as for recovery, pain management, and injury prevention.
The programs on EMS units are designed to work the muscles in a certain way, with a very specific and timed cycle of contraction and relaxation. The programs that come with an electric muscle stimulator do just that – They stimulate the muscles for both warm up and recovery before and after a workout.
Many EMS units also include programs touted to develop endurance, resistance, and strength. Programs on EMS units may target fast-twitch muscle fibers, slow-twitch muscle fibers, or both. Studies indicate that EMS treatments are more effective than TENS units for improving range of motion, and providing immediate release of muscle tightness.
If you still can’t decide between an electric muscle stimulators or a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation device, there are several combination units on the market that offer both TENS and EMS capabilities.
It is best to try the more traditional methods of warm-up, recovery, pain management, and injury prevention before investing in one of these high-tech devices. If light exercise, physical therapy, strength training, and stretching still aren’t making a significant difference, it may be time to give an electric muscle stim device or TENS machine a try.
Will E-Stim or TENS Units Heal My Injury?
If you are a runner who has lower back pain, Achilles tendinitis, or other persisting issues, therapy using an E-stim home unit can be very beneficial.
If you are a runner who has tweaked a muscle or has some acute pain, then try applying ice or cold compresses to the injured body part, resting it, and elevating it before you resort to using E-stim device. Many times one of these treatments, or a combination of all of them, will be enough to start the healing process.
Additional treatment will be required in the case of more serious injuries though. If the pain persists for more than a week, runners should seek the care of a physician who will be able to recommend the appropriate treatment, which may include electric muscle stimulation or TENS therapy.
Your doctor may implement the moderate electrical impulses that a TENS unit delivers to decrease the pain signals sent to the brain, which may reduce pain and provide muscle relaxation. They may also use E-stim for pain relief, and to increase blood flow. For runners with an injury that causes muscle spasms and pain, E-stim can reduce muscle spasms or activate muscles that are shut off.
Physical therapists often incorporate 15 minutes with a TENS unit into treatments for runners with ITB syndrome issues, tight back muscles, or any nagging aches and pains that are intermittent (as opposed to chronic). PT’s may use an electric muscle stim machine on a low setting for non-steroidal management of pain in runners.
While E-stim can alleviate pain temporarily, it cannot solve the underlying issues many runners experience unless combined with a regimen of strength training. For a long-term solution to chronic issues, work with your physical therapist on a treatment that involves keeping spasms away for good by addressing mechanical issues, muscle weaknesses, and muscle imbalances.
Although physical therapists and physicians often recommend that their patients try a TENS unit for muscle spasms, E-stim or TENS units are poor substitutes for physical therapy. Be sure to discuss all questions you may have and explore all forms of injury treatment and pain management with your healthcare provider before starting any electric muscle stim device or TENS treatments.
Whether you are healing from a major knee injury and need treatment to help prevent atrophy in your quad muscle, or you just tweaked your hamstring and need TENS therapy to reduce temporary pain, these instruments can supplement long-term injury treatments, so you can recover faster and get back to running sooner.