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Kyung Lee

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Is the use of EMS(electrical muscle stimulation) a form of doping?

This week in my bioelectricity class, we discussed electrical stimulation of the body. There are EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) devices that allow the user to stimulate and contract specific muscles by sending electrical impulses via electrode pads. EMS is sometimes used in competitive sports to increase exercise tolerance and manipulate the behavior of muscles favorably.

In 2011, a study revealed that EMS may enhance pitching performance and recovery in baseball. Without EMS, pitchers need to find a balance between resting and active exercise. With EMS, blood can continuously flow into the muscles, reducing the risk of exhaustion. There are other studies that show positive effects of EMS on athletic performance such as helping athletes stay warmed up without fatiguing the muscles, while the validity of these claims have not been confirmed. There are coaches that use EMS training on elite athletes who compete in the Olympics.

I’d like to pose a question, is the use of EMS in competitive sports a form of doping? While eating healthy or regular exercise can shape and improve an athlete’s performance, the use of EMS seems to be a more direct and invasive way of making the athlete’s body more fit for the sport. If the EMS technology advances enough to the extent where it can significantly improve athletic performance, do you think it is legitimate or fair to use EMS in competitive sports?

Topics: ems
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  • Mar 11 2013: Technically, taking a protein shake can be construed as doping. All of these things currently seen as "bad" will eventually find its way into the "good" realm.
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      Mar 12 2013: Although I do not believe electrical stimulation should be considered doping, I don't see it comparable to taking a protein shake. Consuming a protein shake is analagous to consuming a healthy high protein piece of food. Electrical stimulation on the other hand, offers many benefits without consuming any energy. An outside source, electricity, is utilized to enhance performance.
      • Mar 12 2013: By your logic, a protein shake still qualifies under and outside source. The same can be argued of creatine. Supplements may be considered less of an evil than some sources, but ultimately, they all still fall under the same category. Anything ingested outside of normal meals falls under "outside" sources. Some companies are known to use a form of steroid to improve the size of their chickens...thus a lot of the population ingests steroids which results in unrealized effects. So should we now dis-continue consumption of certain brands of chicken? Maybe so, but all of the madness behind PEDs and EMS is ridiculous, especially if the standard changes every year.
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    Mar 11 2013: I think it can all depend on how much, how little, and what type of body and stimulus the athlete or the person using it has.
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    Mar 10 2013: Hey Kyung!

    I think this question is really interesting, because it calls to question the purpose against the ban doping, in addition to contributing to the debate of spirit of the law vs. letter of the law.

    If the purpose of the ban is to protect the athletes from compromising their overall health for a temporary athletic edge [as in, allowing the dangerous advantage would create an environment where everybody feels compelled to do whatever it takes to win, at the risk of their health], then we have to debate how safe EMS is, compared to the other, banned, doping methods. EMS (seems to be) relatively safe, so under that lens, the argument falls apart.

    Other arguments against doping include the removal of an unfair advantage to one athlete, or the desire for an even playing field. However, I think that (at least in recent years), the health has been the number one concern of the ban. Steroids are hypothetically available to every athlete, but they're still banned.

    So EMS definitely follows the letter of the law, but is using it in the spirit of the law? What about Oscar Pistorius [now famous for...other reasons] who came into the spotlight during the 2012 summer Olympics for being a runner with 2 prosthetic legs? Do we consider that to be a violation of the spirit of the law? Is the purpose of these events to find the strongest or fastest humans under natural conditions, or is it to see how far we can push previously considered boundaries and see what humankind can accomplish?

    I think that's a much more difficult question to get to the bottom of, and one that might not have a definitive answer.
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      Mar 12 2013: Hindi,
      I really liked the way you phrased the argument presented. I agree, that the major purpose of the ban against doping has been to protect the health of athletes while they are in their competition. In terms of the unfair advantage argument, if these illegal substances were available to everyone, then none of the athletes would have a complete advantage over the other - since anyone could get a hold of it. This being the case, since EMS is safe for the athletes, and has been shown to even improve their health, I do not think that EMS would fall under the doping category. If EMS technologies are widespread enough such that anyone who wanted to could get treated, then I see no reason to put EMS under the doping ban, unless it had been proven to become unsafe or unhealthy for the athletes.
  • Mar 10 2013: The EMS technique is also used to treat muscle pain of many kinds, such as chronic back pain or leg nerve pain. There are two things distinguish it from doping. One is that there are many "treatments" to relax muscle or reduce the muscle pain or soreness, such as hot or ice packs. There are also power enhancing exercises which are , though less effective, still strengthen the muscle in sports. So its is kind of difficult to designate it as doping. There are already miniature EMS used in treating muscle pain or injury of many sites in the body. Even the most powerful machines would not prevent some athletes earning mega bucks to privately own one in their home. The second point is that ,because of it's not too expensive and it is not listed as illegal substance, then it is very difficult to detect and prove such "substance" on the athletes. Furthermore, how can the sports authority determine that the EMS is doping, but ice pack or whirlpool hot bath is not, since all of them are methods for relieving pain and soreness. And similar reasons apply the EMS and muscle training because both are strength-enhancing methods.
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      Mar 10 2013: I had the same question when a chiropractor treated my back pain with EMS and told me how it's used in sports.

      I agree with your argument that if we prohibit EMS as performance-enhancing method, why allow massage, sauna, and ice packs? Regarding fairness, if it's not harmful to the athlete, what prevents everyone to use it? Another point is enforceability of the rule. How can use of EMS be detected?
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    Mar 7 2013: Hi Kyung!

    With the continuous advancement of technology, we are faced to ponder the question of to what extent do we let our inventions apply to us. I do somewhat feel a little bit uncomfortable with the usage of external devices controlling our bodies. There are always uncertainties with the success of our creations and the consequences of a possible failure.

    However, if there are no health risks involved I do think it is overall beneficial to allow for such application, as they can potentially increase our performances. Part of our responsibility is advancing our bodies and if EMS allows us to do that in the context of competitive sports then I think it is of value.

    Great question!
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      Mar 7 2013: Hi Hadar,

      I do agree that EMS is of value in that it has the potential to enhance the body whether or not it has application in sports. My concern was, if the EMS technology advances to the point where there are robots and devices that constantly monitor and control an athlete's muscles, can we say it is still the person who is competing or is it the device?
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        Mar 11 2013: Hi Kyung,
        I think you bring up a very interesting point. EMS could be useful for many reasons and have an overall positive impact on the body. But in terms of competitive sports, is it fair to allow athletes using EMS to compete with others who may not have access to such technologies or may choose not to use it? In a global event such as the Olympics, would this give some countries an unfair advantage over the rest? I've always felt the Olympics should allow athletes from around the world to compete on an equal level regardless of where they are from. I even feel in a sport like swimming where a better suit can easily help shave off an extra millisecond, athletes should be required to all wear the same thing. So, in my opinion, EMS should not be allowed for competitions. Although, in other situations, it may be interesting to look into and experiment with. There is nothing wrong with enhancing the body with EMS and I see the value it possesses, but in terms of athletic competitions, it should be one person against another, not one device against another.
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    Mar 6 2013: The whole concept of "doping" really came out of the Russian and East German programs of the 70s and 80s. Initially it was about stopping athletes doing things that are dangerous to their health. eg Taking so many steroids your kidneys stop working. Really I think the pursuit of dopers because they aren't playing fair is a fools errand. Remember there was a time when olympians had to be amateurs, as professionals cheated by doing all that training when they should be at work. To me it would make much more sense to ban things on the basis of health risk as it is much easier to quantify than whether something is "fair".
    On the specific question I don't see EMS as any different to altitude training or rehydration by drip.
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      Mar 7 2013: Hi,
      Thanks for enlightening me with the origin of doping! Given the definition of doping, I agree that EMS should be allowed as long as it is safe.
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      Mar 12 2013: I tend to agree here.

      The term "doping" is thrown around so much these days that the qualifications for "doping" are almost lost. "Doping" should really be saved for bans on things that hurt the human body. EMS certainly does not do that as far as we know right now. But is it fair for certain athletes to have such a competitive edge while others do not? Its hard to say. I think its important to keep in mind that both natural athletes and doping athletes both put in tremendous effort to be the best they can at what they do. An example of this would be bodybuilding. There exist "natural/drug-free" tested bodybuilding federations as well as non-tested ones. Here, the athletes understand what they are partaking in and there exists a fair playing ground for the natural and the doping athletes.
  • Mar 6 2013: I understand the underlying concern with doping and now this question, is whether any kind of enhancement is considered unfair advantage. With this development we are justified in examining the broader relationship issues and civil behavior: If EMS is fair, then why is doping an unfair advantage? In our relating to one another in sports or any other human activity we are able to consider what is fair for achieving peaceful and acceptable civility.

    If there is no damage or harm to another person, then are we able to say an activity is fair and through law consider an activity to be legal?

    Would doping and EMS be unfair if the costs put these enhancements out of reach for other sports participants? If fair, then do activities, whether or not sports, become only for those who can pay? To me, this is a deeper concern and if only persons of adequate resources can pay, then participation is limited. That seems unfair!

    Real fairness does not block or impede persons from participation. Or, is this statement too simple?
    Good question!
  • Mar 9 2013: I think that the reason doping and other "unnatural" methods of increasing athletic aptitude are condemned is because not every athlete will necessarily be able to afford them. Naturally, doping is harmful to health and should not be encouraged. But if there is any monetary cost attached to EMS--even if it is not harmful at all--then it simply isn't fair. In the same way that the athletes competing against Lance Armstrong had a strong feeling he was using steroids and felt that they had to in order to even try to win against him, once other athletes feel a competitor has an advantaged of some kind, they will want to match up in the same way. But the cost barrier will prevent others from less affluent backgrounds from accelerating their growth and recovery time, stratifying athletic excellence to just those who can afford the latest treatments. The only way for it to be totally fair, across the globe, is for either a) everyone to have access to natural, holistic, harmless treatments or b) for no one to have access to them, even if they are legal. Since a) isn't realistic, we should take it upon ourselves as spectators and participants to encourage athletic development the way it was supposed to happen--100% naturally.
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      Mar 11 2013: Whenever we try to categorize something into legal terms, it's more important to think about ideals and fairness (like you do) than to think about written legal definitions.

      Sports regulation aims to ensure fairness, and fairness will vary with the sporting event's setting. International events and local events can be expected to have different doping rules if the pools of participants have different levels of access to performance-enhancers. For example, in international swimming events, a certain new type of hydrodynamic wetsuit is banned. But in a country where all players have approximately the same access to the suit, wearing the suit might be fair.

      But is it possible to achieve complete fairness? Electrical muscle stimulation devices can be between $50 and $900. (e.g. Compex Sport, $899.) If cost and performance enhancement are correlated, then you're more likely to make it ONTO the team in the first place if you have more money, and that's not fair. Similarly, more money allows an athlete to have more time to train, better coaches, better diets, and better resources. Laws can only get us so close to fairness.

      The other consideration is the impact on society. Because of how public some sports events are, champion athletes are role models for the audience. If athletes are known to have an inaccessible or unsafe advantage, then sporting events can be demotivational or harmful to society.
  • Mar 8 2013: Hi lee.
    what i most want to say is it would be unfair to use EMS for both the user himself and the competitor , it is a tool beyond the natural , do you know something about Bruce lee . that a pity guy of unfair treated by himself !
  • Mar 8 2013: Doping is mainly considered to be bad because of it's negative health effects. Think about how nutritional supplements compare to steroids. Both artificially affect performance yet one is illegal. Laws are put in palace mainly to protect people from themselves and others. It's unfair to force the player's who don't dope to subject their bodies to harm in order to keep up with those that do. You are super cute btw :) Bottom line as I see it, if all players have access to it and it causes them no harm to participate in it, it should be allowed.
  • Mar 6 2013: This is a good question because it is very much in a gray area.

    Massage is an accepted technique for helping athletes. Would it be acceptable if the massage was done by a robot?

    Is robotic massage qualitatively different from EMS?

    Personally, I do not see anything wrong with athletes receiving transfusions of their own blood, if it is done by medical personnel and under the right, sterile conditions.

    IMO, there is nothing wrong with EMS, provided it is done by trained personnel under the right conditions.

    We expect excellence from the top athletes. Give them the freedom to achieve it in their own way.