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Neuromuscular stimulation, also called electronic muscle stimulation (EMS), is a group of similar technologies in which an electrical impulse is applied to the skin and underlying muscle tissue. Primarily, neuromuscular stimulation has two distinct uses: killing pain, and muscle training or therapy. The technique can be used for both chronic and acute pain, and can help prevent muscle atrophy in some patients.
Generally, neuromuscular stimulation has become a common tool for alleviating pain. It can be effective for reducing pain from cancer, arthritis, sciatica, bursitis, shingles, and sports injuries. The technique can be especially useful in patients who cannot or do not want to use traditional painkillers. Often called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), the technology is thought to interfere with nerve endings that transmit pain signals. It also may cause the release of natural substances called endorphins, which generally block the perception of pain.
One common device for neuromuscular stimulation is a TENS unit. It is a portable, generally easy-to-use device that can deliver pain relief from just about anywhere. The patient simply places each of the four padded electrodes in a criss-cross pattern over the painful area. He or she then turns the control to the lowest setting and slowly raises it until he or she feels a tingling from the electrical stimulation and notices the pain subsiding. The patient controls the amount of the current and resulting pain relief.
Electronic muscle stimulation can also help build muscle tone and prevent muscle atrophy. Injury and illness can cause disuse of certain muscle groups. With lack of use, muscles can waste away to the point where they no longer function. Strokes can also result in muscle dysfunction that could benefit from neuromuscular stimulation.
The basic mode of operation is that electrodes are placed over the affected muscles and an electrical signal is sent to the nerves in the muscle. Electric impulses stimulate the muscle, which contracts in response. This simulates the normal method of control between the nerves and muscles. Repeated application can prevent further atrophy and build muscle tone.
Electro acupuncture is also a form of neuromuscular stimulation. It takes the ancient Chinese art of acupuncture and brings it into the electronic age. Acupuncture is a method of using needles inserted in certain nerves around the body to unblock energy and treat certain conditions. Electro acupuncture uses the same acupuncture points, but then an electrical current is passed through the inserted needles to enhance the nerve stimulation.
Electronic muscle stimulation is generally considered to be a relatively safe therapy. Patients with heart problems or who wear a pacemaker should not use electronic stimulation. It typically is recommended that a person check with a doctor before beginning any type of therapy or self treatment.