Living With Chronic Pain

What is a TENS Unit, And Does It Work?

Can a TENS unit give pain relief? The short answer-hundreds of studies have been done on TENS, but most have been small or weren’t well designed. For this reason, some experts say TENS can give short-term relief. Long-term relief hasn’t been proved, so more research is needed to know if TENS can help many kinds of acute or chronic pain. The long answer- healthcare providers have been using electricity to help relieve pain since the mid-1960s. This form of pain relief sends electricity directly to different parts of the body. It’s called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS. A growing body of research says that TENS therapy may help some people in the right situation.

TENS delivers mild electrical impulses to the body through the skin. These pulses are thought to control pain signals in the body, creating temporary or permanent relief. They are thought to control abnormally excited nerves and release endorphins (the body’s internal feel good hormone). Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation may result in instant and possibly prolonged relief at the site of pain. The effectiveness ranges by condition and intensity of treatment. Patients often say they feel a mild tingling sensation or warmth during the treatments. The tingling sensation may temporarily prevent the person from being aware of pain.

It’s a system made up of a power unit, a pair of wires, and electrode pads that are placed on your skin near the area that hurts. A practitioner or patient turns on the unit, and low-voltage electrical current flows into the body. Different stimulation frequencies and intensities are available.

A session usually last 5 to 15 minutes and can be done as often as needed, depending on the case. Physical therapists and healthcare providers often oversee the treatment but they can also prescribe certain units to use at home. 

The main reason people use TENS is to ease pain. Some common conditions that may be helped by TENS include:

  • Arthritis
  • Tendonitis
  • Bursitis
  • Trigger point and myofascial pain syndrome
  • Migraines or other headaches
  • Wounds 
  • Injuries, surgery, acute pain 
  • Nerve pain

TENS is generally regarded as safe. Electrotherapy is 100% drug-free and therefore it’s safe to operate heavy machinery or drive after a treatment. But it has risks just like any other medical procedure. For example, if the electrical current is too high or the electrodes are placed on the wrong part of the body, this can burn or irritate the skin. The “danger zones” include the brain, heart, eyes, genitals, and throat. People with heart problems, pregnancy, or implanted devices, including infusion pumps, pacemakers, and defibrillators, should not get this treatment. Some experts believe TENS therapy has the greatest use for treating nerve pain.

At home I admit, using a TENS unit is time consuming and it is hard to apply the patches to my own back, so it’s not always my first line of defense. But it’s a non- prescription, reasonably benign treatment, so why not add it to the options worth pursuing, if cleared by your healthcare provider?


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