We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.
After exercise, sore muscles let you know you enjoyed a solid workout. But no one wants to live with sore muscles for days on end.
If you have ever suffered from sore muscles, perhaps you’ve used massage to fix the problem. Adding the expense of a massage after every workout could eventually break the bank, though.
At BestReviews, we invite you to consider using an electric muscle stimulator, or EMS. These devices penetrate sore muscles with electrical impulses that cause them to contract and relax. For some people, this process eventually alleviates the soreness, allowing them to enjoy working out once again.
For consumers who are new to the idea of electrical muscle stimulation, we offer some help. Our shopping guide for the best muscle stimulators provides you with key information about these devices. With a working knowledge of them, your purchasing decision becomes easier and smarter.
The product matrix at the top of this page contains the best EMS products available. So take advantage of the time and effort we invested in studying these products, and see for yourself if a muscle stimulator would be right for you.
A muscle stimulator is a machine, handheld or larger, with connected electrodes. Larger machines typically exist only in doctor’s offices and therapy clinics. For use at home, handheld devices provide the most common type of muscle stimulation.
Every muscle stimulator includes a series of electrodes that are connected to the unit via thin wires. To use a muscle stimulator, you attach the electrodes to your skin with adhesive pads and power on the machine.
The machine delivers electrical impulses through the electrodes. These pulses attempt to mimic the body’s nervous system, telling the muscles under the electrodes to contract. Once the electrical pulse stops, the muscles relax.
EMS is a commonly used abbreviation for Electric Muscle Stimulator.
The question of whether muscle stimulators actually accomplish what they’re designed to do is debated among scientists. Ultimately, the outcome of muscle stimulator usage depends on what you want to achieve with the machine.
Naysayers argue that muscle stimulators don’t actually offer any significant help. They suggest that some people may experience success in one or two of these areas but not in all of them.
Our advice: use your muscle stimulator in a proper manner, as outlined above, for a better chance of success.
Although some people believe muscle stimulators promote muscle growth, no scientific evidence exists to support that claim.
Some people who use muscle stimulators report pain relief and a reprieve from muscle and joint soreness after workouts. And some people say their muscles work more efficiently through daily use of muscle stimulators, which tone their muscles.
With a doctor’s prescription, a muscle stimulator could potentially speed the healing of joint injuries. In fact, some doctors use a muscle-stimulating device to prevent atrophy in the muscles of immobilized patients. And doctors who treat stroke victims sometimes use muscle stimulators to promote muscle retraining.
Additionally, doctors sometimes use muscle stimulators to treat patients with muscle spasms. Some doctors believe muscle stimulators work to speed recovery for surgery patients, too.
A TENS unit targets and stimulates nerves; it differs from an EMS unit, which targets muscles. Some devices combine TENS and EMS capabilities.
Scientists tend to agree on one thing regarding muscle stimulators: they don’t cause muscle growth. Even though the claim of muscle growth remains popular in some EMS advertisements, scientific data refutes such claims.
Ultimately, the individual must decide whether this device helps in any way. In other words, using a muscle stimulator is an issue of personal preference. Your doctor may be able to help you determine if an at-home muscle stimulator is right for you.
Some people use an electrical muscle stimulation device for stress release. Some people use EMS treatment before a weightlifting session to help warm up their muscles.
Notable features of at-home muscle stimulator devices include the following.
Some muscle stimulators come with pre-programmed therapy plans. These therapy programs offer a great way to handle certain treatment situations with minimal effort on your part.
A button lock prevents changes to the pulse strength that could result from inadvertent pressing of the buttons. The power button continues to work in case you need an emergency shut-off, though.
A muscle stimulator machine should have a timer that allows you to preset the length of time therapy will last.
Some muscle stimulators include an LCD screen that displays data about the device’s settings. Having feedback available about the device simplifies operation for the user.
Some muscle stimulators include two channels that deliver two separate levels of pulses. Having the ability to deliver different pulse strengths may enhance your results.
Always read the directions for your muscle stimulator to ensure proper setup and safe operation.
At-home muscle stimulators run from battery power. As such, they’re easy to take anywhere.
Some also provide the ability to connect to a wall outlet. This versatility increases a the product’s overall value.
Muscle stimulators run on the power of batteries and/or electricity.
Most muscle stimulators allow you to adjust the level of the pulse. After all, you may feel like you need a stronger pulse on some days than other.
Your muscle stimulator should have a timer that allows you to select the number of minutes you wish to receive treatment. Once the simulator reaches the designated time, it shuts off automatically.
Some people find their muscle stimulator so relaxing that they fall asleep during treatment. Fortunately, setting the timer (with automatic shut-off) ensures that treatment won’t run too long.
Consumers who question the safety of muscle stimulators take comfort in knowing that the FDA regulates these devices. By offering muscle stimulator regulation, the FDA forces manufacturers to prove the safety of their products..
The FDA regulates muscle stimulators that doctors and physical therapists use in their offices. This regulation ensures that use of the machines remains safe for physical therapy and rehabilitation.
The FDA also ensures that at-home muscle stimulators work safely for consumers. FDA regulation reduces the chance of potential problems, such as burns and shocks, by mandating safer components and proper instructions.
An EMS or TENS device with an LCD screen provides messages on settings, making the device easier to operate.
The FDA also regulates the claims that manufacturers can make when advertising muscle stimulators in the U.S. Sellers can legally discuss pain relief, muscle toning/firming, and physical therapy benefits of these machines. However, they cannot legally claim weight loss benefits or muscle gain when advertising their products.
Notably, some EMS devices available for sale don’t meet FDA regulations. These devices pose safety hazards, as described in the next section.
We encourage potential buyers to buy only FDA-approved muscle stimulators from reputable retailers and manufacturers.
The FDA regulates the sale of muscle stimulators in the U.S. If you see a product that hasn’t been approved by the FDA, do not buy it.
As mentioned above, ensuring the safety of the construction of muscle stimulators falls under FDA regulation. Choosing to use a device that fails to meet FDA regulations could lead to numerous problems and dangers.
If applied or operated improperly, even an FDA-approved device could cause skin irritation, burns, or pain. Some people suffer adverse reactions to the adhesive used on the electrode pads, too.
Beyond the omission of FDA regulation, here are some other red flags to watch out for.
All included cables and electrodes must follow electrical safety standards. Poor-quality cables could cause inadvertent shocks.
Some people worry about suffering inadvertent shock while using a muscle stimulator. This is one of the reasons why the FDA regulates their sale. For peace of mind, inspect your muscle stimulator’s cables before use, and do not use them if they look suspect.
People who wear these devices for extended periods of time potentially introduce moisture (through sweat) into the battery compartment. This causes corrosion and potential failure of the device.
Occasionally, a non-regulated muscle stimulator causes interference with medical devices, such as pacemakers. This is not a safe situation.
Wearing a muscle stimulator for an extended period can lead to corrosion if sweat seeps into the battery compartment.
To make the most of your muscle stimulator, you must set up the device properly. Follow these tips.
Applying the electrodes in the right locations and using the proper settings will give you better results. Make sure you read and understand the machine’s instructions before using it.
Some people receive better results with muscle stimulators after a bath or shower. Bathing helps relax and loosen your muscles, which could help yield better results.
Don’t try to use a wide range of electrodes to target multiple muscle groups. Keep the location of muscle stimulator electrodes simple. Target one muscle group at a time.
To receive the strongest electrode signals, focus on only one arm or leg at a time.
Avoid targeting your biceps and triceps at the same time. These muscle groups should be targeted separately, as they’re considered antagonistic muscles that work against each other.
How much should you expect to pay for an at-home muscle stimulator?
Low-end muscle stimulators generally carry a price tag of $30 or less. These devices offer fewer settings and lower overall power pulses than more expensive units.
Although the Soviet scientists who originally pioneered muscle stimulators focused on an increase in muscle growth, today’s devices offer different use cases. Modern muscle stimulation machines tout the ability to provide pain relief and physical therapy, for example.
An at-home machine with a price point around $70 to $100 may offer both TENS and EMS capabilities.
The large machines found in medical offices cost a lot more than at-home machines. They offer plenty of power to perform the therapy the doctor prescribes.
Q. Which companies create the best muscle stimulators on the market?
A. Some of the best brand names in muscle stimulators include AccuRelief, ChoiceMed, Compex, iReliev, Pure Enrichment, Santamedical, and United Surgical. When choosing a device, we recommend that you stick to a well-known brand.
Q. Why don’t muscle stimulators create muscle growth?
A. Muscle growth occurs through the tearing of muscle fibers. When the body repairs those muscles, they grow. A muscle stimulator alone doesn’t break down the muscle fibers as does weightlifting. Additionally, no range of motion exists when using a muscle stimulator. The range of movement involved in lifting weights aids muscle growth.
Q. How does a muscle stimulator reduce pain?
A. Several theories exist as to why/how these devices reduce pain for some people. For those with sore muscles, the act of contracting and relaxing the muscles repeatedly loosens muscle tissue. Another theory says the electrical pulses block nerves from sending pain signals to the brain. Perhaps the muscle stimulation causes the brain to release endorphins as it does during exercise. In this case, the brain reads the muscle contractions and relaxations as exercise.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.