An electrical muscle stimulator (EMS) is a device used to trigger muscle contraction by using electrical stimuli. This phenomenon was discovered a long time ago (back in 1761) and was studied and characterized extensively since then.
Electromyostimulation is performed by attaching electrodes on the skin right above the muscles which need to be stimulated and generating electrical impulses that trigger muscle contraction in a similar manner to how the brain commands muscle contraction by sending electrical impulses through the nerves.
There are multiple examples when such devices prove very helpful in medical practice, especially for:
- rehabilitation in partially or totally immobilized patients (e.g. as part of physical therapy procedures for preventing muscle atrophy as a result of bone, joint, ligament, tendon or muscle injury)
- muscle re-education,
- alleviation of muscle spasms,
- treating medical conditions which result from a stroke, or major surgery,
- pain relief
Besides, in the last years, it has registered a growing interest from the general public for strengthening, toning or firming a muscle and especially, by athletes, as an after-exercise recovery tool and as a complementary training technique (the use of electrical stimulation devices for weight loss, however, is rather arguable, since local muscle contractions have a limited impact on calorie burning).
Athletes and fitness enthusiasts using EMS have reported feeling more recovered the following day after training in what regards muscle stiffness and joint mobility. The constant contraction and relaxation cycles caused by EMS increase the circulation of oxygen and nutrients through the muscles and reset their tone and functionality faster than would be expected. This is particularly beneficial after short burst of intense exercise such as after sprinting, where intense contractions and de-contractions happen at high frequencies. EMS can help relieve muscle stiffness, cramping, and general muscle fatigue.
Other advantages of EMS setups/devices:
- one can perform the training of specific muscles ‘on the go’ from anywhere, while doing other activities and without being required to spend precious hours in a fitness centre or on the running track (just imagine exercising your abdomen muscles without having to constantly think about planning a specialized exercise schedule).
- the rhythm and the intensity of the contractions in most devices can be adjusted, ensuring a comfortable experience and the desired level of ‘exercise’ intensity. Obviously, the electrodes can be applied to any muscles that one wants to train.
- may be used in parallel with other types of exercises
- they are very convenient and portable, many of them just slightly exceeding the size of a smart phone
Are there any concerns?
The worst that can happen while using these devices is limited to skin irritation, light shocks, bruising, burns (also, for those that have implanted devices such as pacemakers, beware of potential interference). All these imply a responsible use, however, all these negative effects can be spotted in time, so one can take action or moderate the use to keep things under control. Anyway, in many countries, companies that market EMS devices are required to comply with certain regulations, which ensures safe exploitation by anyone, when following the instructions.
It is worth mentioning that electromyostimulation doesn’t replace exercise (remember that exercise is a complex coordinated action of your entire organism, including not only the muscles but the nervous system, the respiratory and circulatory system). However, it can prove a good means to recover from intense training or to complement your exercises, especially when you cannot dedicate them as much time as you would normally want, or you need to additionally fortify a specific region of the body.