For any of you who have used a TENS machine, you may have noticed that the electrode pads on your skin produce a pulsating sensation in your muscle tissue.
Does this mean that the machine excites muscles, relaxes the muscles over time, or both? Let’s find out.
The process of muscle recovery very much depends on the individual and what kind of damage the muscles have sustained. Portions of recovery will include a combination of rest as well as a methodical increase in movement and strengthening techniques.
Whether you are a highly trained athlete or a patient who was recently rolled out of the operating room, there are many reasons why muscles get damaged or experience a set-back.
Some barriers to muscle recovery include actual tissue damage, muscle atrophy, or awful pain preventing healthy joint movement and muscle contraction.
If you can determine what physical ailment(s) is preventing you from muscle recovery, then you have a better idea of what treatment methods should be involved in the process.
In a lot of cases, individuals need a little extra boost from a TENS machine. TENS machine stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, which is a therapeutic device used for pain management and muscle recovery.
How TENS Machines Relax Muscles
Let’s first talk about basic human anatomy. Although your injury may be located in muscle tissue, it’s not the actual tissue causing the pain.
Rather, it’s the connecting nerves that are responsible for movement and sensation for particular muscle groups. Those nerves communicate with the brain which makes you perceive pain.
The primary function of a TENS machine is to treat pain associated with muscle injury, atrophy, or other damage that limits movement.
TENS machines send electrical impulses to nerves in order to scramble pain signals to the brain.
This causes the muscle tissue to relax because the pain which was causing a guarding effect dissipates.
How To Use A TENS Machine
First, if you are unfamiliar with how to use a TENS machine, consult with a clinician who can show you the ropes before using it on your own.
Locate painful areas
Palpate the areas on your body where you feel the most pain. You may need some assistance if the pain is in your back or other hard-to-reach places.
You want to identify how large of a painful area is because this will determine where the patches will be placed.
Make sure your skin is clean and dry before applying the gel patches. Place the patches in an X form across the painful area.
So, this means each pair is diagonal to each other and placed on the outer edges of the painful area. This way, the pads cover more surface area.
Turn device on
Hook up the pads to the wires and place them in the correct ports.
Turn on the device and check the battery life if that is how your TENS unit operates. The electrodes won’t turn on until you set up the intensity.
Each TENS unit is different, so read the instructions carefully or follow the suggested format from your clinician.
Some TENS units will have settings specific to different areas of the body as well as types of massage (i.e. tapping, cupping, random setting).
Set the intensity just high enough to get a gentle tingling sensation. If the pads are causing painful twitching, then your setting is too high.
Best TENS Device For Muscle Recovery
These days, people experiencing pain can easily purchase a TENS device for private use in their own home.
Here are three highly recommended TENS devices currently available online:
Although expensive (roughly $250), the Complex Sport Elite states that it has multiple settings for pain management, muscle build, endurance, and recovery.
What you do need to be watchful of is whether or not the TENS machine can build muscle, because typically this is not true of most TENS units which are primarily used for pain management.
This $76 machine combines TENS and EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) features, which means it can be used for both pain management and muscle strengthening to promote recovery/ (We’ll discuss the difference between EMS and TENS in a short while).
The $95 Easy@Home seems to be one of the more user-friendly TENS units available. It provides clear instructions for 20 power intensity levels, which is effective for pain management and muscle recovery.
Muscle Knots & Tightness
What is considered a muscle knot and how does it form? Although it’s unclear, many experts think they are myofascial trigger points which are located in specific contraction parts of muscle tissue.
The fibers feel all bunched up, causing bumps that are quite painful. Muscle tightness can exist for many reasons, but most commonly caused by overuse or even lack of use of muscles.
TENS units have been proven effective in combating muscle knots and muscle tightness.
What the machine does is confuse nerve signals for pain, which allows the muscles to let their guard down and relax.
Healthcare experts suggest that, in order to feel the full effect, you should combine TENS unit treatment time with a healthy stretch routine.
TENS Machines Muscle Spasms
What exactly is a muscle spasm? A muscle spasm refers to an involuntary twitch or contraction of muscle tissue that often causes pain.
There are several different causes including injury, pinched nerves, dehydration, and over use of muscle tissue.
Yes, there have been cases where TENS machines help reduce muscle spasms associated with injury, arthritis, surgery, and so on.
However, research is very limited and experts suggest that more studies need to be conducted concerning what types of muscle spasms are better treated with TENS devices.
EMS Vs TENS Machines
Here’s the question you are probably pondering: Do TENS units help build and strengthen muscle tissue? Most professionals will give you a resounding no.
TENS units target nerves rather than muscles. That’s where the EMS machine comes in to play.
One machine is not necessarily better than the other because they both serve different purposes in muscle recovery.
Talk about the differences
TENS machines are primarily used for pain management because electrical impulses confuse nerve signals for pain.
The EMS (electric muscle stimulator) provides settings that directly contract and relax muscle tissue for the purpose of muscle building and recovery.
Some products available on the market are combined TENS and EMS devices.
EMS & Muscle Relaxation
On a similar note as the TENS machine, does EMS promote muscle relaxation?
Experts don’t seem to connect EMS treatment with overall muscle relaxation, and it definitely depends on what causing the muscle tension in the first place.
EMS has been used in order to reduce swelling and inflammation after a workout, which can produce a relaxing effect.
How does it work?
EMS machines send electric impulses directly to muscle tissue and not nerves as seen in TENS machines.
The electric impulses cause a muscle contraction, quite similarly to a contraction you would get from lifting a weight or other form of resistive exercise.
The benefit in using an EMS machine for muscle building purposes is that the EMS impulse can hold a contraction much longer than a fatiguing athlete working out on their own.
The electric impulse contracts muscle tissue in order to produce lactic acid, which is used to build up muscle tissue during typical muscle-building exercises.
EMS has become popular for competitive athletes seeking an edge in their preferred sport.
Muscle Recovery & Growth
EMS machines have also been used in muscle recovery after injury or surgery.
When muscles aren’t contracted or used for a while, then the affected person runs the risk of experiencing muscle atrophy.
This literally means muscle tissue is wasting away, which reduced strength and overall range of motion in the joints.
EMS machines combat atrophy by producing muscle contractions that someone may be too weak to perform on their own. The contraction gets the blood circulating in order to repair damage and promote muscle growth.
Are They Worth It?
Both the TENS machine and the EMS machine provide great benefits for muscle recovery and pain management.
Healthcare professionals still suggest not depending on one or the other solely in recovery. Make sure you are participating in exercise regimens regularly (as suggested by your doctor if it’s for rehab), eating healthy meals, and drinking plenty of water.
Talk to your doctor about whether or not TENS, EMS, or a combination of both is right for you. Have a productive conversation about what your actual needs are, whether it’s just pain management, increasing range of motion, building muscles, or all of the above.
Before making your purchase, research as many options as available to you that are relevant to your unique needs.