Electrical Muscle Stimulators – Can They “Zap” the Fat Away?

Maybe you’ve seen these electrical devices to put on your body on the TV infomercials. The public is told that they can build and tone muscle and burn fat. You simply strap the device on your tummy, lay back and relax with a cocktail and watch the fat melt away. Yes, they work to stimulate muscles electrically and you will feel them tingling and making the muscles contract. But that is where the truth ends. 

A frog that has recently died (tragically) can be hooked up to a muscle stimulator and you can see his muscles twitch and move but this has no lasting effect. The infomercials are playing on the public’s lack of knowledge. Electrical muscle stimulators (EMS) are used in physiotherapy for two purposes.

Two Purposes of Electrical Muscle Stimulators (EMS)

  1. To help people re-strengthen injured areas not to burn fat or tone muscle effortlessly. To strengthen weak muscles, the key is to be actively exercising the muscle while the machine is on. The muscle stimulator must be synchronized with your active movement in order to be effective. Physiotherapists have used this principle extensively since the 1940’s and the Russians used it in the 1970’s with their weight training athletes. For example, a weight would be placed on the ankle and the stimulator pads are placed on the front of the thigh (quadriceps muscle). The person then straightens their knee making their muscle contract while the stimulator works on the quadriceps muscle also making the muscle work. By working the muscle along with the stimulator there will be an enhanced strengthening effect.
  2. Muscle stimulators are also used to help with pain and muscle spasm relief. Physiotherapists will use them on the back muscles for example to help reduce muscle tension and spasm. They are set to go on for 10 seconds and off for 10 seconds. This repeated contraction and relaxation of the muscles tells the brain to relax the muscles and kill the tension. We often use them in combination with heat which has a great relaxing effect. A muscle stimulator is really a specialized form of TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator). As well as causing muscles to release their tension, a muscle stimulator will also reduce pain. It sends electrical signals through the nerves to the brain which helps to release endorphins and block pain signals. Endorphins are your body’s own natural pain killers, fifty times more powerful than morphine.

So electrical muscle stimulators definitely have their place, but it’s how they are used and for what purpose that is the key. Sorry, but there is no easy way to burn fat!

By Kelly Milan, BMR, PT ©

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Kelly Milan, BMR, PT, Cred. MDT

Kelly graduated from physiotherapy at the University of Manitoba in 1991. He joined The Corydon Physiotherapy Team in 1991 and became the director and owner in 1997. He sold the Clinic to Melanie and Garret Klos, physiotherapists on April 1, 2019. Kelly is happy to be able to focus on full time patient care now. Kelly always had a special interest in physiotherapy since his teen years when his father had physiotherapy for a shoulder injury.

Kelly completed his credentialling examination and is certified in McKenzie mechanical diagnosis and therapy of the spine (2002). Writing articles and research has always been a special interest. Kelly has published articles and reviewed publications in peer-reviewed international physiotherapy journals including "The Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy" and “The Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Clinics of North America”. He also contributed to an international study on physiotherapy for back pain. Educating employees in house with injury prevention has also been a pursuit.

Kelly’s continued professional goals include:

  • Creating an exceptional environment for patient care.
  • Serving the physiotherapy community through many professional committees with the College of Physiotherapy and The Manitoba Physiotherapy Association.
  • Kelly served on the Manitoba Physiotherapy Association’s board as Chair of The Business Affairs Committee from 2005 to 2013 and past Chair of the Manitoba Physiotherapy Association/Manitoba Public Insurance Liaison Committee.
  • Constantly pursuing knowledge and training in order to provide exemplary patient care
  • Contributing further to clinical research, to help further prove the value of physiotherapy. Please visit our Health Blog and "For Health Professionals" to review valuable articles demonstrating physiotherapy effectiveness.
Kelly enjoys cycling to work (from Easter to Remembrance Day) and recreation with his three children ages 18, 20 and 22. He also enjoys downhill and cross country skiing in MB and B.C. and summer time fun at Riding Mountain National Park with his family and partner Deana. Kelly has also continued to play drums with bands since age 12 (his drummer idol is John Bonham).

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