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)
- 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.
- 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 ©