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What is Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS)?

To understand how EMS works we first need understand what our nerves do. Nerves are pathways that the body uses to send and receive electrical messages. There are 3 types of nerves: sensory, motor and spinal. Sensory nerves enable us to feel things, such as whether an object is hot or cold. Motor nerves enable us to do things, as they control the action of muscles. Spinal nerves combine sensory and motor functions, enabling the body to both feel and do things.

For example, if you want to move your leg, electrical messages are sent from your brain to muscles in the leg, telling those muscles to tense-up, or ‘contract’. It is this process of ‘contraction’ that makes the leg move. Of course, this contraction only happens for a short time, then the muscles relax again.

EMS works by delivering electrical pulses to the body. These activate motor nerves in the body, which in turn cause muscles to contract. As explained above, the body naturally uses electrical messages to tell muscles to work.

To see how EMS works in practice, let’s look at the problem of returning blood to the heart from lower parts of the body, such as the feet and legs. This is hard work for the circulation, because this blood has to be pushed uphill. The circulation therefore needs help from the muscles that surround veins.

When we walk for example, muscles in our feet and legs help to pump blood upwards, in the same way as you would squeeze liquid along a tube. EMS applied via the soles of the feet activates the motor nerves and causes the calf muscles to contract and produce this helpful squeezing action, but it does so while a person is seated rather than walking. EMS is not intended as a replacement for physical activity, but is ideal for use alongside it, to help blood flow in the legs.

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How is EMS different from TENS?

You may have heard of TENS machines, which are used to help with pain relief. ‘TENS’ is short for ‘Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation’. TENS machines deliver tiny electric pulses to the skin, affecting the sensory nerves with the aim of blocking or reducing pain signals going to brain.

TENS is very different from EMS, because while TENS may be able to block some of the pain associated with certain symptoms of poor circulation, it does not boost the circulation itself. EMS on the other hand directly activates the muscles to help improve blood flow and reduce pain, through reducing symptoms of poor circulation.