What’s the Difference between TENS and EMS?

Chances are that if you’re a person who likes to keep up with the latest developments in the world of health and fitness training, you’ll already be familiar with TENS and EMS technologies. But you may still not be clear on the key differences between them.

The main difference between TENS and EMS is what they are used for. TENS machines are used to relieve pain, whereas EMS is used to build muscles and make them stronger. 

The goal of this post is to help sharpen your knowledge of the similarities and differences between TENS and EMS, and help you to decide if either of them may be beneficial to you.

Similarities of TENS and EMS

At first glance, EMS and TENS devices may appear quite similar. Both deliver electrical stimulation through pads attached to your skin, and use this electrical stimulation to help alleviate physical problems or to promote physical wellbeing.

But that’s where the similarities end! 

Differences between TENS and EMS

Let’s start by looking at what these two acronyms stand for. 

  • TENS = transcutaneous (‘through the skin’) electrical nerve stimulation. Pay special attention to the word ‘nerve’, as this is the target site for this type of stimulation.
  • EMS = electrical muscle stimulation. The key word here is ‘muscle’, as muscle fibers are what EMS kick into action.

This is of course a very general way to think of the differences between TENS and EMS, and should become clearer when explained in a little more detail. So read on!

Pain Relief with TENS

This is the most obvious difference, as TENS is the only technology used for the treatment of pain.

It does this by sending electrical impulses through the skin which reduce the pain signals being sent to the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain) from the affected area.

TENS can also stimulate the release of the body’s natural endorphins, which can further reduce the feeling of pain. 

Take for example, a person who suffers from sciatica, a condition arising from compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve, causing shooting pains in the lower back, buttocks and legs.

This person may be helped by TENS treatment – when the pain flares up, the patches can be applied to the painful area, and the current adjusted to a level that lessens the intensity of the pain signals being sent to the brain.

TENS can also be used to relieve pain such as:

  • Arthritis
  • pain from sports injuries
  • pain experienced by women going through labour

It’s important to bear in mind that TENS is only an immediate form of pain relief, does not offer long-term cures, and may not work for everyone.

However, many people find it to be effective, and a welcome alternative to relying on painkillers, which of course often come with side effects and risk of addiction.

So TENS is all very much about changing the way the body’s nerves fire, specifically those involved in transmitting pain signals to the brain.

This is very different to EMS, which as mentioned above, is all about stimulating muscle fibers to achieve the desired results.

How Does EMS Work? 

When we use our muscles normally, the brain sends signals down the spinal cord to motor nerves, which then cause contraction of the right muscles. EMS works by simply bypassing the brain and spinal cord, and stimulating the motor nerves directly, resulting in the same muscle contraction.

Read: The Science of EMS

Being able to directly activate muscles in this way has several significant uses. 

Firstly, let’s look at the use of EMS in rehabilitation.

EMS and Rehabilitation

EMS allows people who are unable to move their muscles voluntarily, to continue activating and training them. Muscles need to be activated regularly in order to maintain their strength. 

This is not a problem in most normal circumstances. Walking around in our daily lives  provides us with the mild exercise needed to maintain the integrity of our leg muscles.

However, this isn’t always the case. Consider someone who is in hospital and unable to move their legs due to injury or surgery. The danger here is that the muscles will start to atrophy (waste away), as they are not being stimulated at all.

This is where EMS comes into the picture. This muscle atrophy can be slowed or prevented by artificially activating these muscles, giving them the ‘exercise’ they would normally be getting in the patient’s daily life. 

Another example could be a patient who is suffering from an inherited muscle wasting disorder such as motor neurone disease.

A common symptom of conditions like this is ‘foot drop’, where the person struggles to lift the front part of their foot off the ground while walking, due to muscle weakness. This is dangerous as it increases the risk of injuries from falling. 

EMS can be used here to bring the contraction of the foot muscles up to normal levels, allowing the person to walk with fewer difficulties – the artificial stimulation makes up for the weakness caused by the patient’s condition.

Like TENS, EMS does not offer a miracle cure, but it certainly can be a useful tool to boost muscle stimulation as part of a carefully planned treatment program. 

EMS and Fitness

Given that EMS can be used to help grow and maintain muscles in disorders like those we just looked at, you can’t blame sportspeople, athletes and fitness enthusiasts for asking “Is it possible to use EMS as part of my regular training routine?”

And the answer to that question is “Yes, you can.”

EMS technology continues to develop and improve all the time, and its use as a fitness enhancement tool can be broadly broken down into two functions:

  • muscle training
  • post-exercise recovery

Often this will be incorporated into a normal training routine. For example, wearing a wireless EMS suit during weight training or while doing bodyweight exercises can help to achieve better and/or faster results.

Read: The Core Concepts of EMS Training

The unit can also be used during other non-physical activities, for example while working on a laptop or sitting on a long flight. This allows for an increase in the amount of time the desired muscle groups are stimulated, which has significant benefits for athletes wanting to see results in shorter times.

Read: Too Busy to Workout – Let EMS do the Workout for You

After exercise, the EMS device can be set to a pulsing program to promote circulation, ease muscle tension and reset tone. 

We’ve looked at TENS and EMS as separate things so far, but in fact, combination TENS/EMS units are available for those who may benefit from both types of stimulation.

For example, an office worker who suffers from lower back pain but also maintains a regular exercise schedule – this person could set their unit to the TENS setting in order to manage the back pain, and switch it to EMS during fitness training.

Final Thoughts

If what you’ve read so far isn’t quite clicking into place, this may be a useful summary of the above info:

TENS = Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation – used to manage pain, by changing the action of nerves responsible for pain signals 

EMS = Electrical Muscle Stimulation – used to enhance muscle growth, strength and recovery (for medical or fitness training purposes), by artificially causing muscle contraction

It’s important to remember that these treatments may not be suitable for everyone. If in doubt, always seek the advice of a health professional before going ahead with any new treatments or training programs.

Well, that’s all for now – hope you now have a clearer idea of how TENS and EMS are used, and if either of them may be beneficial to you.

The AWI Powersuit is a wireless EMS suit which can support you in your health and fitness goals as mentioned above. Visit our website to find out more about this innovative technology that can give you the freedom to workout anywhere, anytime!

Wishing you excellent health and success in your fitness training!


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