TENS vs EMS Units: Which Is Right For Me?

If you suffer from chronic nerve or muscle pain, you might have heard that a TENS or EMS unit could provide you with non-addictive, drug-free relief. While both TENS and EMS units are powerful solutions for pain therapy, it’s important to understand that these units don’t necessarily function in the same way. Each has a specific purpose and is successful at easing the pain and discomfort of different conditions. Knowing what sets them apart will help you decide if you should choose a TENS unit, EMS unit or a unit that offers both TENS and EMS capabilities.


EMS or Electric Muscle Stimulation is the process of causing muscle contractions using an external electrical charge or pulse usually created by an EMS machine or device. The device electrodes are placed on the skin and the electrical charge is sent into the muscle charging the muscle’s fibers and causing a muscle contraction. It is different from TENS as it makes the muscle contract.


EMS stands for electronic muscle stimulation. These units are designed to provide relief by stimulating the muscles themselves. Muscle stimulation is used to treat swelling and inflammation that can put a strain on both the muscles themselves and their supporting joints. By reducing inflammation, these units help to restore function and prevent joints from becoming dislocated by strained muscles.

Many physical therapists and doctors recommend EMS units to their patients for muscular pain relief. They can reduce muscle spasms and edema, which are leading causes of muscle pain, discomfort and loss of function. They are also used in clinical and home settings to encourage greater healing by stimulating blood flow and improving range of motion.

EMS units are sometimes used to help stimulate local blood circulation. That’s because they’re often able to ease muscle tension and to reduce stiffness in joints and muscles that can cause restrictions in motion. EMS units are particularly helpful for increasing blood circulation in the back and neck because these areas tend to suffer from more tension than the rest of the body.

You might use an EMS unit if:

• you suffer from muscle spasms,
• have poor blood circulation,
• have suffered from muscle atrophy due to disuse,
• your muscles need to be stimulated and re-educated,
• your muscles are weak and lack tone,
• you’ve lost range of motion due to an injury or illness, or
• you’ve recently had a surgery and doctors want to prevent venous thrombosis in your lower legs.


TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. These units are designed to provide relief by sending comforting, non-painful impulses through the skin to the nerve or nerves below. This electronic stimulation often reduces or eliminates the pain that an individual feels due to a nerve disorder or chronic health condition.


Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation or TENS is a pain therapy that uses electrical impulse to relive pain naturally without the use of drugs or narcotics (non-narcotic painkiller). The electrical pulses stimulate nerve endings and the skin to create endorphins and confuse pain signals. Though theories as to how it works differ in each the pain is relieved naturally by electronic stimulation.

TENS units use the stimulating pulses to distract your mind and help prevent pain signals from reaching your brain. These units can also stimulate your body to produce its own natural painkillers known as endorphins, these natural feel-good chemicals are essential to pain relief and mood enhancement for those who suffer from painful chronic conditions.

Most TENS units offer a variety of modes and programs so that therapy can be targeted to an individual’s needs. It’s easy to adjust the modes on these units for maximum pain relief. However, it’s important to remember that the level of pain relief varies according to the individual and the condition from which they suffer.

You might use a TENS unit if:

• you have acute or chronic pain,
• have pain after a surgery,
• suffer from post-operative incision pain,
• have regular migraines or tension headaches,
• you’ve suffered from sports or activity injuries that cause chronic discomfort,
• you suffer from arthritis,
• you have tendonitis or bursitis,
• you have cancer pain,
• you suffer from pain from wound healing, or
• you’re pregnant and are looking for alternative pain control methods for labor and delivery.



Deciding between a TENS and EMS unit can be difficult. If you’re not sure if your pain is caused primarily by muscle or nerve problems, talk with your doctor or physical therapist. These professionals should be able to direct you towards the best unit to help control pain.

Many patients know that a TENS unit is right for them because they already receive this type of stimulation at a physical therapist’s office. Don’t hesitate to ask your physical therapist what type of machines they use to help you. If you currently take medications for nerve pain, a TENS unit is also likely a better choice than an EMS unit.
If you’re currently taking medication to target muscle pain, stiffness or spasms, an EMS unit is likely a better choice than a TENS unit. These types of units are also a good choice if a masseuse, physical therapist or chiropractor has remarked that your pain may be caused by muscle tension.

In some cases, individuals suffer from chronic pain that involves both the nerves and the muscles. Many of these individuals can find relief from combination units that offer both TENS and EMS capabilities. These lightweight combo units are designed to provide the best in therapeutic solutions for individuals who suffer from ongoing pain or chronic health conditions.

The bottom line is that it’s important to understand the condition that causes your pain before choosing between a TENS or EMS unit. If you’re not sure what the underlying cause of your pain is, consult your doctor or a pain management professional. Understanding what causes your pain will help you make the best treatment decisions possible no matter your situation.


Back to the top