Tens Vs EMS – What’s The Difference Between These Devices?


If you’re heard of e-stim therapy before, you might know that there are two different types: TENS units, and EMS units. How different are these devices, and is one better than the other? In this article, we’ll discuss everything that you need to know about them.

We’ll cover the differences, what each unit does, and if one is better for runners than the other. By the end, you’ll be a pro at identifying the difference between the two as well as knowing what is best for you.

Tens vs EMS - what is the difference

What is a TENS machine?

TENS stands for Transuctaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. Using a non-painful stimulus, a TENS machine suppresses pain signals being sent to the brain. In other words, you’re tricking your brain to ignore pain.

Designed to treat a specific area of the body, TENS machines are typically used to alleviate back pain, osteoarthritis, labor pain, foot pain, multiple sclerosis, and so forth. The idea is to give relief by sending impulses through your nerves that are not painful.

By blocking pain signals to the brain, TENS machines can help you feel better and feel less pain. For this reason, they are often used for post-surgery, athletic injuries, or chronic pain.

TENS machines can also work as a stimulator for endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers. Often individuals can use TENS machines in lieu of a typical painkiller like Tylenol or ibuprofen.

It’s more common to use a TENS machine at home than an EMS machine. The former is for pain relief, which is easier to do by yourself without a medical professional. At the same time, it’s important to make sure that you know what you’re doing and talk to a doctor before getting started.

Related: The Top TENS Units For Runners

What is an EMS machine?

EMS stands for Electrical Muscle Stimulation, and the idea is to cause your muscles to contract and relax repeatedly to either help them recover or strengthen them.

An EMS machine is designed to be used on entire muscle groups. They are typically used by athletes for rehab, as they will strengthen your ligaments, muscles, and tendons. An EMS machine can also help you build muscle, and some athletes use EMS machines in their training programs.

An EMS machine works more like exercise because it stimulates the muscles themselves instead of the nerves. If you are dealing with atrophied muscles, you would use an EMS machine rather than a TENS machine.

You can also use EMS machines for expanding your circulatory activity and helping to counteract blood clots. The great thing about an EMS machine is that you can use it to improve your physical fitness or to help your body heal after a hard workout.

At the same time, you can’t completely replace your traditional exercise routine with an EMS machine; it’s best when you use it alongside a good physical program. You can purchase an EMS machine to use at home, but you’ll often see them at the physical therapist or chiropractor’s office.

What are the main differences between these devices?

Electro stimulation used to treat knee pain

Both devices provide electronic stimulation via contact pads that you place on your body. Additionally, both devices are controlled digitally by a microcontroller. However, the end goals of the electronic stimulation are vastly different.

A TENS machine is designed for pain management, and it accomplishes this through current pulses in a small range. By contrast, an EMS machine stimulates muscles to contract. EMS machines will help retrain muscles beyond just pain management. They use cycles encouraging contraction and relaxation of varying intensities.

As this description suggests, the main difference between a TENS machine and an EMS machine is that the former is for nerve stimulation while the latter is for muscle stimulation. You will get immediate pain relief from a TENS machine although it may not last long once you’re done using it. An EMS machine, on the other hand, is used for long-term treatment.

Which device should runners use?

It depends on what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re interested in immediate pain relief, a TENS machine is going to be more useful. But if you’re interested in strengthening your muscles and developing a long-term treatment plan, an EMS machine will suit your needs better.

You might consider starting with a TENS machine at home. If that doesn’t do the trick, contact a physical therapist or chiropractor to start using an EMS machine on a more regular basis.

Are there machines that do both?

Yes, there are actually, and this is a great way to save time and money. If you need a machine to do both, look into a combination TENS/EMS device. This way you can meet the different needs you might have—TENS for back pain and EMS for muscle strengthening.

If you’re someone who loves portability and versatility, a combination machine makes sense. However, if you really would only ever need one machine—like a TENS machine if you have arthritis—don’t feel the need to purchase a combination unit.

In the end, TENS and EMS machines are both useful, but for different reasons. Don’t make the rookie mistake of assuming that since they are both e-stim machines, that they function the same way – because they don’t.

Instead, remember that TENS is for pain and EMS is for strengthening, and incorporate these devices as needed into your training program.