Stimulating Thoughts

Stimulating Thoughts

Stimulating Thoughts


ITEM: The FDA has announced it is examining claims made by manufacturers and sellers of electrical muscle stimulators to determine whether rules about making unsubstantiated medical claims are being violated.

My response: ‘bout time!

Only by residing in a cave the past few years could you have avoided the numerous ads and infomercials touting these devices as the “answer” to the age-old question, How can I [easily] get those six-pack abs? All you have to do, ladies and gents, is wear this little belt for 30 minutes a day and you, too…

The fantasy is enticing, but that’s all it is – a fantasy! The truth is, electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) is a decidedly inferior method of increasing muscle strength and/or tone when compared to more traditional active (against gravity) or resistive (weight lifting) exercises. There are several reasons for this:

  1. To get any training effect from EMS, you would have to apply it for at minimum of 30 minutes, and this doesn’t even account for the time it takes to put on and take off the electrodes! To do the traditional exercises yourself would probably only take about 10 minutes at most.
  2. EMS is usually positional. That is, the muscle is stimulated to contract at a single (isometric) position, rather than through its entire normal range of motion. Even if the stimulation under these conditions actually produced an increase in muscle strength or tone (dubious!), it would occur at this position only and not through normal movement conditions. For example, if you were to stimulate the abdominal muscles (probably the most popular use for EMS by the public) while standing or lying down, that position would be the only one at which there could be any improvement. Your abs would not see any increase in strength once you moved out of that position, which you most likely will do during everyday, functional activities.
  3. While it is true that physical therapists frequently utilize EMS to increase muscle function, we do so almost exclusively with patients who are unable to perform an active, voluntary contraction of a muscle or muscle group after injury or surgery. The swelling and pain that accompanies these events can inhibit the electrical impulse that normally travels along the neural pathways from the brain to the muscle. EMS in these cases can help facilitate the re-establishment of this mechanism, but even so, the patient is still encouraged to try as hard as possible to voluntarily contract the muscle and not rely solely on the stimulation.

I am often asked by patients if these devices are good for anything. I always answer that, other than in special circumstances (see #3 above), they are good mainly for the bank accounts of the makers and sellers of these basically worthless toys. Save yourself a few bucks and just do the exercises. They’re really not that difficult.