What is a TENS Unit? Does it Relieve Pain?

what is a TENS unit

Electricity is transformative. It has eased the way we refrigerate food, get our information, travel, light our nights, heat and cool our homes – the list goes on. There are countless ways electricity makes our lives more comfortable. In many instances, it even saves lives, literally, when it comes to medical devices like pacemakers and insulin pumps.

Would it shock you to know that pain management should be added to that list? Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS, is a technique that shows promise when used as a stand-alone pain reliever or when added to other pain tackling measures you might be using to deal with joint, muscular, soft tissue, or post-surgical discomfort.

Coupled with exercise, acupuncture, deep needle trigger point therapy, massage, physical therapy, and medications, TENS can be part of your arsenal aimed at relieving pain and improving your quality of life.  

What is a TENS Unit?

A TENS Unit consists of a battery-operated electrical pack with wires that attach to adhesive pads. Some units are small enough to fit in your pocket. Other brands are larger. But, most don’t take up much space.

TENS Units are used in professional and private settings. But, before you go out and buy one for home, or even try using one, it is important to understand what it is, how it works, and whether or not it might be useful (or safe) for you.

Granted, if you are hurting, anything that might provide relief sounds wonderful. You might be eager to plug-in and turn-up the voltage to zap soul-sucking pain away.

However, as useful as electricity is to sustaining a healthy lifestyle, remember that electricity needs to be respected! Use of a TENS Unit should be approached with caution and cleared by a physician who understands your medical history.

You, or a caregiver, attach the adhesive pads, or electrodes, on either side of an area plagued by joint or muscle pain. Different models include pads of various sizes big and small.

Once the machine is turned on it starts sending electric impulses through the electrodes to the tissue between the pads. Users start with a low level of impulse and adjust the machine until tingling starts to trump tension.

The set up sounds a lot like an Automated Defibrillator that has the ability to jumpstart a heart, doesn’t it? Sticky pads. Wires. Nerve altering electric impulses…rest assured, slapping these pads on and firing it up usually does not result in anything resembling a jolting scene from Grey’s Anatomy.

The electrodes are generally much smaller than a defibrillator and conduct substantially less current. The current generated by TENS units is meant to gently trigger the nerve pathways in painful spots, without rattling too deep of a shock.

However, externally generated electric current can be dangerous for individuals with certain medical conditions, like certain cancers, heart issues, and epilepsy. It is also ill-advised to use TENS if you have certain medical devices, like pacemakers.

While TENS studies have been done safely on pregnant women to study pregnancy-related back pain, that does not mean it is safe for everyone. Participants in TENS studies have been screened for all medical issues that might complicate use and outcome.

How Does a TENS Unit Work?

TENS is based on the idea that electrical impulses can redirect or quell pain signals coming from the brain and nerves, which can dull negative sensations and coax muscles into relaxing.

Other non-pharmaceutical pain management techniques also draw on redirecting nerve pathways. Think deep needle trigger point therapy. It is indicated that TENS can help reduce muscle spasms if you are plagued by those. It is even used to reduce labor pains for some women.

The tingling sensation felt when electrodes are attached and turned on is often described as mild. TENS users often report relief from pain while the units are attached and in action.

The even better news is that some think that the benefits extend beyond immediate use too. Some studies indicate that TENS therapy might help release pain-reducing endorphins into user’s systems.

Is a TENS Unit Safe?

Keep in mind that not everyone who is cleared by a medical professional to try TENS units ends up liking electric stimulation. For some individuals, the current is not pleasurable and exacerbates bodily tension and pain levels. Others discover they are allergic to the adhesive on the electrodes. The good news is that there are pads out there that are hypo-allergenic.

Other than an allergic reaction to adhesives and more radical reactions due to underlying medical conditions, there are some other things that can go wrong when using a TENS unit that indicate it might be best to initially try it under the watchful eye of a therapist. If the current is not adjusted correctly, the pads can burn skin.

Pad placement is also important. Never ever place the pads with one on your chest and one on your back – that is the position that is used to restart hearts! Keep pads off of your temples and the front and side of your neck, lest you end up administering electroshock therapy to your big ol’ brain.

If you have numb areas, skin irritation, or damaged veins you should not place pads there. Pads should be kept away from your mouth and eyes too.

There are plenty of places where the pads can be perfectly safe, though. From relieving chronic lower back pain to post-surgical knee pain, from labor pains to muscle pulls – TENS shows promise in helping people find ways to recover from injuries or deal with chronic conditions without relying on pills.

Find out where it might be safe for you to place pads to find relief. The takeaway here is that it is best to try TENS under the advisement of a professional who can advise you on safety, placement, and technique before going out and purchasing a unit if possible.

Sticker Shock or Not?

If you do decide to get a personal TENS unit to use on your own they are not shockingly expensive. They range in price from around $25 to 300. TENS machines at all price-points can be found at common retailers and online.

In tandem with being budget-friendly, TENS units of various sizes can fit into a variety of lifestyles. Some battery packs can fit easily into a pocket and can be used discreetly if you need a pain-relieving zap session on the go. Others don’t take up much space on a tabletop.

What is it for You: TENS or TENSION?

In short, a TENS unit might provide you an economical and versatile way to address both chronic and acute muscular and joint pain issues without reaching for medications, making your life a little better.

While pharmaceuticals can be a blessing, they can also cause gastrointestinal distress, damage to organs with over-use, and create new medical problems. Discovering alternative therapies and new ways to address pain can help you reduce stress hormones in your body and speed healing.

Though studies have not definitively demonstrated TENS works for everyone all of the time, there is enough evidence out there to suggest many people find it useful as a stand-alone treatment or part of a larger plan.

If you haven’t tried it and your medical history suggests it is safe for you, go ahead! Harness electric energy through TENS the next time you find yourself energyless and aching for something more soothing than your tired typical go-to pain-reducing routine.

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