What is the Difference Between TENS and a Muscle Stimulator?

Jami Yontz
Jami Yontz
Endorphins, the body's natural opiates, are typically produced during exercise.
Endorphins, the body's natural opiates, are typically produced during exercise.

A Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator (TENS) and a muscle stimulator are both home devices that use electronic pulses to stimulate and relax parts of the body, providing pain relief and other benefits. TENS units stimulate sensory nerve endings, and an electronic muscle stimulator (EMS) causes the muscles to contract. Both the TENS and a muscle stimulator unit are available as an over-the-counter device, and there are more advanced units that can be acquired by prescription. Each device has a small LCD screen that allows the user to select different programs for stimulation. The TENS and a muscle stimulator unit come with electrodes attached by a wire that are placed over the muscles or areas of pain, and some muscle stimulator sets come as a large pad that is placed over an area of the body.

People who are on bed-rest may benefit from use of a muscle stimulator.
People who are on bed-rest may benefit from use of a muscle stimulator.

TENS units are suggested for people who have long-lasting or chronic muscle or joint pain. The unit works by stimulating the neurons under the skin where the electrodes have been placed, and the electronic pulses prevent the body from sending pain signals. TENS units also stimulate the production of endorphins in the body, which can help to alleviate pain as well. A TENS unit allows the user to control the pulse and intensity of the electronic pulses being sent through the body, which create a tingling sensation in the muscles.

TENS therapy may be prescribed for some people to help combat chronic pain.
TENS therapy may be prescribed for some people to help combat chronic pain.

A muscle stimulator is not used to alleviate pain, but it is an effective device for some people who have experienced an injury to their muscles. The electronic pulses cause the muscles to contract, creating a light or passive workout for the muscles. This helps to rebuild strength, re-educate muscles that may have been paralyzed, and improve blood circulation, which increases the rate of healing. An electronic muscle stimulator also prevents the muscles from wasting away, known as atrophy, and helps prevent muscle spasms. Those who are on bed-rest, have an injury that prevents them from using certain muscles, and people who experience muscle weakness may benefit from the use of a muscle stimulator.

TENS works by stimulating neurons with electronic pulses, preventing the body from sending pain signals.
TENS works by stimulating neurons with electronic pulses, preventing the body from sending pain signals.

People wanting to train a specific group of muscles also use muscle stimulators. The unit stimulates the muscle fibers and create tension, which helps the muscles break down faster in order to be rebuilt during periods of rest and recovery. Muscle stimulator training is combined with weight lifting to speed up the body’s rate of muscle growth and overall strength results.

People wanting to train a specific group of muscles use stimulators.
People wanting to train a specific group of muscles use stimulators.

The TENS and a muscle stimulator units are basically the same device, but they work to stimulate different parts of the body. There are now units with both a TENS and a muscle stimulator that can be purchased to provide both pain relief and strength training benefits. Patients with a pacemaker should not use an electronic stimulator, and the device should never be worn across the chest or over the face.

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Discussion Comments

anon952643

I had a knee surgery seven weeks ago and I am still unable to lift my leg up straight (I sort of cannot contract the muscle above my knee). My doctor just prescribed me a TENS machine. Does this mean he prescribed me the wrong thing? I am really worried.

tenspain

Really it is an interesting discussion going on and I am enjoying it very much because my doubt is clearing slowly.

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    • Endorphins, the body's natural opiates, are typically produced during exercise.
      Endorphins, the body's natural opiates, are typically produced during exercise.
    • People who are on bed-rest may benefit from use of a muscle stimulator.
      People who are on bed-rest may benefit from use of a muscle stimulator.
    • TENS therapy may be prescribed for some people to help combat chronic pain.
      TENS therapy may be prescribed for some people to help combat chronic pain.
    • TENS works by stimulating neurons with electronic pulses, preventing the body from sending pain signals.
      TENS works by stimulating neurons with electronic pulses, preventing the body from sending pain signals.
    • People wanting to train a specific group of muscles use stimulators.
      People wanting to train a specific group of muscles use stimulators.