Pros and Cons of Electrical Muscle Stimulation

Using electrical stimulation for pain relief is not a new idea. We have used this for mof pain therpay for decades in the UK. A little known fact is that this approach was also used thousands of years ago by Ancient Egyptians; mainly to treat arthritis pain and headaches. Are you in a hurry? Amazon has the perfect Electrical Muscle Stimulation machine for you.

However, their methods were not naturally not as sophisticated as our own  and involved using electrical fishes to trigger a numbing reaction in the the human body.

Pros and cons of electrical muscle stimulation



After the development of human-made electricity, various types of electrical stimulation were developed, and nowadays we have three main modalities:





  • Transcutaneous electrical stimulation, administered on the skin surface.
  • Percutaneous electrical stimulation, administered through acupuncture-like needle probes.
  • Spinal cord stimulation, an invasive method.

In this article, we will cover the pros and cons of transcutaneous electrical stimulation, also known as electrical muscle stimulation or EMS. Is it useful to improve pain symptoms in your legs? Is there any side effect you should know about?


What is Electrical Muscle Stimulation?

Electrical Muscle Stimulation is a therapeutic modality for leg pain that causes muscle contractions by applying electrical currents directly to the skin. It is also known as neuromuscular electrical stimulation because it works in the neuromuscular junction by stimulating motor neurons to trigger contraction.

The neuromuscular junction is where muscle and neurons meet, and in this place, the activated neurons release neurotransmitters to the muscle receptors, triggering muscle contraction. In this regard, electrical muscle stimulation is also useful as a passive exercise modality, and apart from improving pain symptoms, it is known to stimulate blood circulation and has many health applications.


Electrical Muscle Stimulation Uses in Medical Science Research

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Benefits of Electrical Muscle Stimulation

There are many pros and health applications of electrical muscle stimulation:

  • It is a non-invasive method: Compared to other techniques such as percutaneous electrical stimulation, applying a mild electrical current directly to the skin is a non-invasive method and does not require needle probes. Moreover, modern EMS devices are calibrated to deliver a type of electrical stimulation that will not give you a sudden shock or make you feel uncomfortable. Thus, it is available for a wide variety of patients, regardless of their age and previous experiences with medical procedures.
  • Reduces pain symptoms in the lower extremities: Electrical Muscle Stimulation is a useful therapeutic approach to improve pain symptoms in patients with arthritis, osteoarthritis, and other causes of leg pain. There are many theories to understand why electrical stimulation works to reduce pain symptoms. One of them is because electrical stimulation activates mechanoreceptive fivers (nerves that detect movement and touch), and they reduce or inhibit pain transmission. Additionally, EMS stimulates the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter with analgesic functions in the central nervous system.
  • It is a good way to prevent muscle wasting: Since electrical muscle stimulation is known to trigger muscle contractions, it is an excellent way to prevent muscle atrophy and muscle wasting in patients who are undergoing physiotherapy. Electrical stimulation is a type of rehabilitation therapy for immobilized patients and those who suffered spinal cord damage, sarcopenia, and other health conditions associated with muscle wasting. This alternative is available for patients who need to prevent muscle atrophy but are unable to perform active exercise.

  • Improves aerobic capacity: Electrical muscle stimulation improves aerobic capacity measured by peak oxygen consumption when it is used for more than 6 weeks. This effect is useful for sedentary patients and those who suffer from heart conditions that significantly reduce their activity levels, such as chronic heart failure.



  • It has a positive effect on blood circulation: The effect of EMS on blood circulation adds up to the reasons why it improves pain in the lower extremities. According to studies, the transcutaneous application of electrical stimulation enhances the microcirculation in the lower extremities of diabetic patients and those with abnormal blood flow. EMS improves the endothelial function, which is fundamental to maintain our cardiovascular health. Electrical stimulation induces vasodilation through the release of calcitonin and nitric oxide. That is how both microcirculation and microcirculation are significantly improved after applying electrical stimulation.
  • It is an alternative exercise for critically ill patients: Patients in hospital ICU and after ICU discharge usually have persistent muscle weakness due to an extended period of immobilization. This may also compromise their circulation, especially when there is sepsis or systemic inflammation. These patients have a catabolic state, which means their bodies are constantly breaking down muscle tissue to obtain energy.
  • Improves muscle and joint function in arthritis patients: When applied in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee and other forms of arthritis, electrical muscle stimulation increases the size of muscle fibers and the resulting strength in the lower extremities. It is also known to improve microcirculation, which is the reason why it is associated with a decrease in muscular fatigue in these patients. Studies show that arthritis patients may benefit from this therapeutic modality, and it is a useful way to improve joint function and strengthen the muscles of the lower extremities in these patients.
How to Use a Home Electrical Stimulation Unit

A word of caution before using EMS

There are better techniques and devices for electrical muscle stimulation compared to the Ancient Egyptians. However, it is still important to know the downside of EMS:

  • It is not the best exercise for muscle hypertrophy: EMS is a good way to prevent atrophy, and it is used in physiotherapy to recover muscle function. However, it is not the best exercise if you want to train for muscle hypertrophy. The results of EMS are not significant compared to resistance exercise to increase muscle mass.
  • It is a symptomatic therapy: EMS is an effective therapeutic option to increase blood circulation and reduce pain symptoms. However, in most cases, it is only a symptomatic therapy that temporarily works to relieve pain. Thus, it should be combined with medical treatment and other approaches if you want to solve the root problem.
  • Certain devices would cause superficial burns: Adverse events have been described in some studies, and one of them is superficial burns when the device is not calibrated as it should or after incorrect stimulation techniques.


In a nutshell, EMS is an effective and safe therapeutic strategy to relieve pain symptoms and improve blood circulation in the your feet, as you can see in this table:

Pros and cons of electrical muscle stimulation
Pros Cons
It is non-invasive It does not work for muscle hypertrophy
It reduces pain symptoms and improves blood circulation in the lower extremities It is a symptomatic strategy that should be combined with medical therapy
It is useful to prevent muscle wasting in immobilized and chronically ill patients Certain devices would cause adverse events
Improves joint function in arthritis
Prolonged use improves aerobic capacity in patients with chronic heart failure



Heidland, A., Fazeli, G., Klassen, A., Sebekova, K., Hennemann, H., Bahner, U., & Di Iorio, B. (2013). Neuromuscular electrostimulation techniques: historical aspects and current possibilities in treatment of pain and muscle waisting. Clin Nephrol, 79(Suppl 1), S12-S23.

Rosemffet, M. G., Schneeberger, E. E., Citera, G., Sgobba, M. E., Laiz, C., Schmulevich, H., … & Cocco, J. A. M. (2004). Effects of functional electrostimulation on pain, muscular strength, and functional capacity in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee. JCR: Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, 10(5), 246-249.

Gerovasili, V., Tripodaki, E., Karatzanos, E., Pitsolis, T., Markaki, V., Zervakis, D., … & Nanas, S. (2009). Short-term systemic effect of electrical muscle stimulation in critically ill patients. Chest, 136(5), 1249-1256.

Banerjee, P., Caulfield, B., Crowe, L., & Clark, A. (2005). Prolonged electrical muscle stimulation exercise improves strength and aerobic capacity in healthy sedentary adults. Journal of Applied Physiology, 99(6), 2307-2311.

Parissis, J., Karavidas, A., Farmakis, D., Papoutsidakis, N., Matzaraki, V., Arapi, S., … & Pyrgakis, V. (2015). Efficacy and safety of functional electrical stimulation of lower limb muscles in elderly patients with chronic heart failure: A pilot study. European journal of preventive cardiology, 22(7), 831-836.

Parry, S. M., Berney, S., Granger, C. L., Koopman, R., El-Ansary, D., & Denehy, L. (2013). Electrical muscle stimulation in the intensive care setting: a systematic review. Critical care medicine, 41(10), 2406-2418.

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