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What is an Electric Muscle Stimulator?

By K. Willis
Updated May 17, 2024
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An electric muscle stimulator is a device designed to deliver a low-frequency electrical impulse to a muscle. The device is designed to simulate the organic electrical pulse that originates in the nervous system and sends a signal to the muscle to move. Such devices are used to aid in recovery from and rehabilitation of muscular injuries and as a training aid for athletes.

Scientist Luigi Galvani discovered in 1791 that electricity could be used to stimulate or activate muscles. Further research and technological developments have identified that long-term use of an electric muscle stimulator can be of aid in building and toning muscle tissue. Different frequencies and levels of stimulation can be used to reduce muscle fatigue and increase the production of muscle tissue.

The electrical impulse from an electric muscle stimulator causes the targeted muscle to contract and increases the muscle temperature and circulation of blood. Electrical muscle stimulation can also be used to treat recurring headaches, back pain and numbness in the limbs. Reputable chiropractors use this treatment on a variety of conditions, including carpal tunnel syndrome, muscle atrophy, muscle spasms, sciatica, sports-related injuries and muscle regeneration.

During treatment, pads are placed on the skin in a position corresponding to the target area. A tingling, massage-like sensation develops as the electrical frequency is increased. A treatment session typically lasts between 10 and 15 minutes.

Side effects of electrical muscle stimulation can include short-lived redness and skin irritation, and tenderness in and around the targeted area may be present for several days after treatment. People with implanted medical devices such as pacemakers should seek alternate treatment, as should pregnant women. If the pads are placed incorrectly, moderate to severe pain may occur if the electrical charge stimulates a nerve.

Used as an athletic training aid, an electric muscle stimulator should be incorporated into one's overall training routine and can be used after periods of intense muscle exertion to encourage muscles to recover faster. When used as part of a structured training regime, electrical muscle stimulation is often focused on quickly building muscle tissue and reaching peak strength, which usually occurs within 10 sessions.

Further sessions add little in the way of strength and tissue increase. For this reason, many trainers recommend short, intense initial strength-building routines with short booster routines every six months. Daily stimulation can be incorporated into the training routine to maintain peak strength and aid in recovery. Some people claim electric muscle stimulator devices can aid in weight loss and help a person achieve so-called six-pack abs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which regulates the devices in America, did not support such claims in 2010.

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