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The Scary Truth About Electrical Stimulation Workouts

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If you've ever gone to physical therapy, you may have experienced some "e-stim," or electronic stimulation, to help loosen your tight muscles so they can recover. These e-stim devices, when used therapeutically, are designed to stimulate nerves that make muscles contract, ultimately relaxing and loosening any tight spots. There are actually plenty of these pain-alleviating devices available over the counter and online (also called TENS—transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation—units), but they're designed to work on a specific area, not your entire body. Keep in mind, though, it's not a medically accepted at-home treatment and most doctors will probably not recommend purchasing one since you likely don't have the institutional knowledge about how much or how little electric current your body can take.

One crazy workout trend is taking the DIY e-stim concept to an entirely new level. The fad suggests wearing an electronic stimulation suit over your entire body as you exercise, whether it be bodyweight moves like reverse lunges or picking up a dumbbell and doing a few biceps curls. One reporter from The Guardian was apparently traumatized by the experience, calling it "the worst 20 minutes of my life."

Turns out the pain isn't always temporary either. Yesterday, Dr. Nicola Maffiuletti of Switzerland and his colleagues wrote a letter published in British Medical Journal raising real concerns about this workout trend, which they say has "limited scientific evidence" of its safety and effectiveness. The call-to-action also reports that there have been some pretty serious adverse side effects. (For some fun fitness tech that actually works, check out these Up-and-Coming Fitness Gadgets That Could Replace Your Personal Trainer.)

Specifically, Maffiletti and his team, who are from The Human Performance Lab at the Schulthess Clinic in Zurich, found three separate patients who participated in e-stim workouts had subsequently suffered from rhabdomyolysis, which is a breakdown of muscle breakdown—muscle fibers actually die! Sounds like the exact opposite effect you'd hope for from a workout, right? What's worse is that the condition causes the release of a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream, which can end up doing damage to kidney cells.

Luckily, right now, the e-stim workout trend is primarily showing interest in other countries outside the U.S., and Israel has even introduced legislation to regulate the sale of e-stim devices. Our advice? Stay away from anything even resembling an electrical stimulation suit. It probably doesn't allow you to show off those gains anyway.

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