Can Runners Benefit from ESTIM (Electrical Stimulation)?


Whether you’ve heard of ESTIM (electrical stimulation) or not, more knowledge is always a good thing. Bring this increasingly popular tech to your running recovery, and enjoy its benefits.

In this article, we’ll give you everything that you need to know about e-stim and by the end you’ll know if it is a good fit for you!

What is E-Stim?

E-stim is also known as electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) or neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES). In short, electrode pads on your skin send electrical impulses to your muscles, encouraging them to contract.

Typically, e-stim therapy is used to strengthen and repair tissues either for faster recovery or to heal from injuries. You can vary how your muscles react. From very slight contractions to deeper more thorough stimulation, it all depends on how the machine is set.

How Does E-Stim Work?

E-stim therapy mimics how your central nervous system tells your muscles to contract. In other words, the electrical impulses stimulate muscle contraction. The idea is to do this over a sustained period of time for repeated contracting and relaxing.

By such repetitive movements in the muscle, e-stim improves circulation, improves strength, and improves range of motion by stretching the shortened tissue.

This is in contrast to other types of muscle stimulation like foam rolling, massage, or percussive therapy guns that use exterior massage to treat muscle pain and soreness.

Therapists believe that electrical currents in e-stim also help block pain signals. By blocking this information, it is thought that the painful area will feel better.

Are There Different Types of E-Stim?

Yes, there are! While all e-stim machines stimulate through electrical currents, there are typically two ways that this happens. NMES or EMS (or muscle stimulation) is intended to stimulate the motor neurons, or the nerves controlling the muscle.

By contrast, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is intended to stimulate the sensory neurons, or the nerves that tell you when you’re feeling pain. This type of therapy is only used to relieve pain, while NMES or EMS can be used for recovery.

The other benefit of TENS is that you can use different wavelengths to achieve different goals. For example, one wavelength will help if you want to avoid pain while another will help you relax.

How Much Does It Cost?

As with many things in life, it depends on where you go and what you purchase. If you use e-stim machines a lot, you might want to look into purchasing a home unit.

Physical Therapist

Honestly, it will depend on your insurance how much e-stim treatment at a physical therapist costs. If it is medically required, it might be covered. But as elective or preventative treatment, paying out-of-pocket is more likely.

The cost to visit a physical therapist varies widely, so check with a few local PTs to balance price and services. That second part is important – less expensive isn’t a better deal if the overall therapy experience isn’t as good.


Home Units

The great news is that you can expect the same thing from a home unit and a professional unit. The only difference might be that your therapist has more settings on the office machine. Make sure, though, that you are experiencing the same sensations at home that you would in a therapist’s office. It should not be painful.

It is your choice whether you choose to see a doctor before using a home unit. In some cases, you might be perfectly fine resting and elevating your acute injury and then using an e-stim machine at home.

But if the pain persists over a week, you should definitely go to a doctor. The injury might be more serious than you originally thought.

If you’re new to e-stim, it probably is a good idea to go to a physical therapist first to see how the machine works. Approach the professional sessions as a learning experience. Pay attention to what your body feels like during therapy so that you have an idea of what to expect at home.

You can purchase an e-stim machine for anywhere from under $50 to over $500 depending on the features that you desire. You do not need a prescription to buy an e-stim machine, although insurance may cover your purchase if you have one.

If you’re looking for an over-the-counter e-stim machine, your best bet is going to be the pharmacy or drugstore.

Typically, you can expect the e-stim pads to last for about 20 to 30 uses. Depending on how frequently you use your e-stim home unit, this could last anywhere from one month to several months.


That’s right—insurance may cover e-stim treatments or even a home e-stim machine depending on your coverage. Medicare, for example, stipulates that an individual has to have pain that has lasted for at least three months and has tried other treatments.

Some insurance providers require that a doctor writes a prescription. Still others ask that you rent an e-stim machine first before buying one. And insurance will not cover e-stim machines for all types of pain.

Are There Areas I Shouldn’t Use E-Stim?

Yes, there are, and you want to make sure you avoid these areas. Do not use an e-stim machine – at home or in a therapist’s office – on vital portions of your body. These parts would include your brain, chest, and neck.

Additionally, if you have a pacemaker, you shouldn’t use e-stim at all, as the machine might interfere with the pacemaker and make it not work properly anymore. You should be careful when using e-stim during pregnancy or if you’re trying to conceive. These considerations are a strong argument for starting your e-stim therapy with a trained medical professional. They can advise you of these and other possibly dangerous uses.

Are There Any Downsides to E-Stim?

On the whole, e-stim machines are very safe, but there are several risks you should keep in mind. First, you can cause muscle tears if your muscles are too tight and tense when you are contracting them. This occurs when the machine is set too high.

If you begin to feel pain when using an e-stim machine, you are likely making your injury worse. Turn off the machine or tell your therapist to stop. Make sure that you don’t overdo it.

If you use an e-stim machine a lot, you may experience skin irritation or even burns. Make sure your skin is clean and dry before placing the e-stim pads. This’ll reduce the likelihood of an adverse reaction.

Recent shaving can also cause irritation. Give your skin a bit of time to heal up after a shave. If those two things don’t fix the problem, consult a doctor to assess whether you might be allergic.

Similarly, if you don’t use an e-stim machine properly, you can subject yourself to burns. Because there is a strong electrical current flowing through a particular part of your skin, that area may be subject to burns. Stop treatment if your skin is starting to hurt, and give your skin time to recover.

E-Stim and Running

Professional athletes have used e-stim for a while to recover from injuries. Only recently has it become popular for the average runner.

Will E-Stim Make Me a Faster Runner?

In a round-about way, yes. E-stim can make you a faster runner, but you’re going to have to combine it with strength training as well. Also, since TENS is just for eliminating pain, you will have to use EMS. If you’re looking for a training and recovery edge, e-stim is worth a look.

Since you don’t have to worry about inputting more information into your central nervous system, you won’t be taxing your muscles any more. As one specialist notes, all injuries are “brain” injuries. This means that by improving the connection between your mind and body through EMS, you will be able to work through injuries and recover faster overall.

If you’re interested in incorporating e-stim into your training program, check out this training plan.

Will E-Stim Help Me Recover Faster?

There has not been much research done about e-stim and recovery. But the few studies that have included e-stim in recovery methods found it is more effective than doing nothing. That might not sound like a strong selling point, but keep in mind that many runners simply “relax” for recovery. The study showed that e-stim is about the same as techniques like massage for recovery.

Can I Use E-Stim for Running Injuries?

Honestly, there are a lot of injuries you can use e-stim for. EMS therapy can be great for relieving back pain, working muscles that have been weakened, and assisting in athletic recovery. You might consider trying it with any muscular injury you have to see if it helps.

Because TENS is just used to relieve pain, it will not be effective in helping to improve muscle strength, but it may alleviate pain. Typically, TENS is used on pain from your back and feet, as well as tendinitis.

In the end, e-stim is still considered an alternative option to recovery methods for athletes and runners although it has been used for many years. It is worth looking into to see if it is a good fit for you. Some athletes have discovered that it’s made quite a difference in their lives.