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Can Runners Benefit from ESTIM (Electrical Stimulation)?

Whether you’ve heard of ESTIM (electrical stimulation) before or not, you probably would benefit from learning more about it and how it relates to running recovery.

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?

Also known as electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) or neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES), e-stim therapy occurs when you are wearing electrode pads on your skin and a machine sends electrical impulses encouraging your muscles to contract.

How your muscles react may be very slight or the contractions may be more obvious depending on the setting that a therapist has placed the machine on. Typically, e-stim therapy is used to strengthen and repair tissues either for faster recovery or to heal from injuries.

How Does E-Stim Work?

E-stim therapy mimics information you would get from your central nervous system and 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 increases circulation, improves strength, improves range of motion by stretching the shortened tissue, and strengthening weakened or unused muscles.

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 help to block pain signals that your muscles are giving your brain. 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, while you may have to pay out-of-pocket if you are more interested in using it as a preventative measure.

Additionally, the cost to visit a physical therapist varies widely, so you will want to check with some local physical therapists to see what the cost of e-stim treatment would be for you.


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 a similar sensation at home that you would in a therapist’s office. It should not be painful.

It is your choice if 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, as it might be a more serious injury than you originally anticipated.

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 and what your body feels like while undergoing 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 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, while 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 the 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.

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 on too high of a level.

If you begin to feel pain when using an e-stim machine, you are likely making your injury worse and should 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. If you have an adverse reaction to the e-stim pads, you should try making sure that your skin is clean and dry before placing the pads on it.

If you’ve shaved recently, that may cause irritation. If those two things don’t fix the problem, you should see a doctor in case you are 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

While professional athletes have used e-stim for a while to recover from injuries, it has only recently become popular to start talking about e-stim and the more average runner.

Will E-Stim Make Me a Faster Runner?

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 an edge, e-stim can provide that for you.

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, you can check on 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 have found that it is more effective than doing nothing to recover except relax, but that it’s about the same as the more typical recovery options like a massage.

Can I Use E-Stim for Running Injuries?

Honestly, there are a lot of injuries you can use e-stim for. If you’re using EMS therapy, it 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 injury that 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 neck, foot issues, and 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.

The Wired Runner