This post is all about using TENS for pain. Chronic pain can be extremely challenging to live with. Some people suffer for years with pain which fluctuates but never goes away. It can be idiopathic, which means doctors don’t know what causes it, but that doesn’t mean it’s imagined. In this post, we look at what TENS is, how it works, who it’s suitable for, getting started and what types of device are available.
What is TENS?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (transcutaneous means through the depth of the skin). A mild electrical current as a means of pain relief. It consists of a small battery powered device with leads that have sticky pads on the end called electrodes. To use it, stick the electrodes on the skin over the painful muscle, then turn on the device and adjust the current.
How Does TENS work?
The electrical impulses feel like a tingle. They can interrupt and reduce the pain signals which are going to the spinal cord and brain. They may also stimulate endorphins (the body’s natural pain killers). There aren’t enough thorough research studies to say for definite that TENS is a reliable form of pain relief. So, more research is needed and there are clinical trials underway.
Some people do find it helpful, although how well it works depends on the individual and the condition being treated. TENS does not cure pain but it does provide short-term relief, typically whilst it’s being used and for a short time afterwards. Lots of people use it alongside other forms of pain relief, for example hot/cold compress and pain medication.
Who Can Use TENS for Pain?
For most people, TENS is a safe treatment with no side effects. Some people may experience allergy to the pads, but special pads for people with allergies are available. TENS is not safe for everyone to use. Do not use it without consulting your GP or specialist if:
- you have a pacemaker or another type of electrical/metal implant.
- you’re pregnant, or there’s a chance you might be pregnant (TENS may not be recommended early in pregnancy).
- you have epilepsy or a heart condition.
TENS may help to reduce pain and muscle spasms caused by a wide range of conditions including: arthritis, period pain, endometriosis, knee pain, neck pain, sports injuries, and sometimes it’s used for pain relief during labour.
Using TENS for pain relief: getting started
There are a variety of TENS machines on the market and range in both price and functionality. See below for some examples. Once you’ve got your machine, read through the manufacturer’s instructions and charge your device. With the device switched off, attach the pads to your skin. Place them in pairs (one pair or two pairs) on either side of the painful area. Each pad needs to be at least 2.5cm away from any other pad. There are certain areas where it can be dangerous to place the TENS pads, never place the pads over:
- the front or sides of neck
- your mouth or eyes
- your chest and upper back at the same time
- irritated, infected or broken skin
- varicose veins
- numb areas
Switch on the machine and either select your settings, or a pre-set programme. When the machine is working it feels like a slight tingling sensation passing through the skin. The strength of the electrical impulses can be controlled by a button on the device. Start on a lower setting and gradually increase it until the sensation feels strong but comfortable. If it starts to feel painful or uncomfortable, reduce it slightly. For more information about using TENS for pain relief see the NHS website.
Types of TENS device
If you’re thinking of using TENS for pain relief there is a wide variety of devices to choose from. They range in price from £15 to £350 and over. What type of device you’ll need will largely depend on the kind of functionality you want. I tried a cheaper device first to see whether TENS would be helpful for me and then bought a slightly more expensive one with better functionality. Both units are easy to operate, come with good quality electrode pads and can be adjusted to auto shut-off when the timed session finishes. They also both have two setting types: TENS and EMS (electrical muscle stimulation, which is not relevant in this post). I review each unit below.
Best for Functionality: Med-Fit Dual Control 4 Channel
I’m a huge fan of Med-Fit and they’re also the NHS tens machine provider. You know you’re getting great quality and excellent after sales care. I find the med-fit team is great at responding to emails. I bought the Med-Fit Premier dual control 4 channel unit, which is quite a solid unit and has a belt clip so you can move whilst using it. It comes in a hard carry case along with everything you need including pads, leads, charging cable and instructions.
It has 12 pre-set programmes but you can also control all of the settings yourself. This means total flexibility over pain relieving sessions. This is the main reason I purchased it, it allows me to also use it for TVNS (tens vagal nerve stimulation). This is a treatment which is proving increasingly popular for people with ME/CFS. It will be the subject of a forthcoming post. The intensity has 100 intervals so it should be easy to find one that’s comfortable. It costs around £60 and is also available on Amazon. This is good value as I paid £70 for mine last year.
Best for Budget: AUVON 4 Outputs TENS Machine
This is the first unit I bought, just to see whether TENS is something that could benefit me. The unit is small and light weight, so can be put in a pocket. It came with a draw-string pouch along with everything you need including pads, leads, charging cable and instructions.
There are 20 pre-programmed settings for using TENS for pain. It took me a while to find a programmed setting which was comfortable but once I did it provided effective pain relief. There are 20 intensity intervals, so a more significant jump in levels compared to the Med-Fit and sometimes I found one too weak but the next one up too strong. It’s OK to change intensity during a session though and I found this helped. It costs around £40 and is available on Amazon.
Conclusion: Using TENS for Pain
Would you try using TENS for pain? Do let me know if you have any questions or would like to share your experiences, just use the comments form below. If you’ve found this post interesting or useful, you might like the other posts in the Treatment or Reading sections. If you’re interested in trying to form new neural pathways to help heal chronic pain, see our review of The Way Out.