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What Is Tens Therapy: Use Cases, Benefits & Side Effects

What Is Tens Therapy: Use Cases, Benefits & Side Effects

Apria Editorial |

The ancient Egyptians (c. 2,500 B.C.), using electrogenic fish, were among the first people to successfully use electricity to treat pain. While electrostatic generators contributed to the widespread adoption of electrotherapy in the 18th century.

Today, TENS therapy contributes to pain relief in millions of patients worldwide. If you're exploring options for the relief of chronic pain for you or a loved one, you've come to the right place.

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation device treats pain with an electrical current. In this article, you will find out what TENS therapy is, how it works, and its risks & benefits!

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy alleviates pain using small amounts of electrical current.

The ancient Egyptians (c. 2,500 B.C.), using electrogenic fish, were among the first people to successfully use electricity to treat pain. While electrostatic generators contributed to the widespread adoption of electrotherapy in the 18th century, by the late 19th century the practice had fallen out of favor due to the growing popularity of pharmaceutical alternatives.

After the 1965 publication of "Pain Mechanisms: A New Theory" by Melzack and Wall, the use of electricity to treat pain gained renewed attention. The publication hypothesized that large-diameter peripheral neurons could be activated electrically to block the central transmission of painful information. In clinical trials, this form of therapy had shown positive success rates, and its efficacy as a treatment method in its own right soon became apparent.

Today, TENS therapy contributes to pain relief in millions of patients worldwide. If you're exploring options for the relief of chronic pain for you or a loved one, you've come to the right place. A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation device treats pain with an electrical current. In this article, you will find out what TENS therapy is, how it works, and its risks and benefits.

What Is TENS Therapy?

For some, TENS treatment might be a helpful supplement to conventional pain medication. This method of relieving pain involves the application of electrical current to specific areas of the body.

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine is a portable, battery-operated electronic device that uses electrodes in adhesive pads. TENS devices are compact, lightweight, and discrete. TENS units are compact enough to fit in a pocket or be clipped onto a belt, allowing users regular access to their pain treatment.

The pads are used externally and applied directly to the skin. The tingling sensation the patient experiences while the machine is on is caused by tiny electrical impulses sent to the part of the body that needs treatment.

Safe locations for the electrodes include:

  • The back of the neck
  • Stomach
  • The upper and lower back.
  • The shoulders
  • The upper and lower thighs

Electrodes should never be placed on:

  • The head
  • Mouth, eyes, or face
  • Front or sides of the neck
  • Directly above the spine
  • Either side of the chest or abdomen
  • Chest and upper back simultaneously
  • Above varicose veins
  • Irritated, infected, or broken skin
  • Near genitals

Electrical impulses help suppress pain signals to the nervous system, spinal cord, and brain, potentially relieving pain and relaxing muscles. These also help stimulate endorphin production, helping elevate mood and the body manage pain.

What Is TENS Used For?

TENS is a non-invasive pain-relieving technique. Patients who find success using TENS are able to cut down on their usage of opioid pain medications, some of which are addictive or have undesirable side effects.

Treatment with TENS may be useful for alleviating pain and muscle spasms caused by a variety of medical conditions.

The following symptoms typically respond to treatment with a TENS unit:

  • Postoperative pain
  • Knee pain
  • Sports injuries
  • Joint pain
  • Neck and low back pain
  • Period pain
  • Labor pain
  • Pelvic pain caused by endometriosis

Other conditions for which TENS therapy may provide pain relief include:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Spinal cord injury
  • Arthritis
  • Syatica and nerve damage
  • Whiplash
  • Diabetic neuropathy
  • Plantar Fasciitis

It's important to note that while the TENS machine may help alleviate pain temporarily, it is not a long-term solution.

How Does A TENS Unit Work?

In order to function, a portable TENS unit sends electrical currents via electrodes and into the skin. This causes a tingling sensation by stimulating nerve pathways, which in turn activates a complex neural network to reduce pain.

The settings on a TENS unit allow users to adjust the intensity of the device's pain-relieving pulses to meet their individual needs.

These settings include:

  • Intensity:
    The dial on the device lets the user control the strength of the electrical stimulation.

  • Frequency:
    The frequency is the rate at which electrical pulses are sent to a device, expressed in hertz (Hz). Acute pain often responds well to high-frequency (HF) pulse (80 to 120 cycles per second). Pulses with a low frequency (LF) of 1 to 20 Hz are effective in relieving long-term chronic pain.

  • Duration:
    The duration is the time, in microseconds, that the current is applied to the skin during a single pulse.

What Are The Advantages Of TENS Therapy?

TENS therapy may be used either alone or in conjunction with other pain management strategies.

This therapy has many positive effects, including:

  • Pain Relief:
    The most obvious benefit of utilizing a TENS unit is the reduction of persistent pain. The nerve impulses then facilitate the production of endorphins, which alleviate pain naturally and without adverse consequences.

  • Convenience:
    TENS units are around the size of a smartphone. They are battery-operated, lightweight, and compact enough to take anywhere for convenient on-the-go pain management.

  • Ease Of Use:
    Lightweight and simple to use, this device is ideal for home usage. All that is required is the application of the electrodes and activation of the device to preferred settings. It will do the rest — presenting a more user-friendly option than other pain relief tools like massagers and inversion tables.

  • Frequency Of Use:
    TENS units are safe to use many times daily. Many experts suggest allotting 30 minutes for each treatment session.

  • Personalized Settings:
    TENS technology allows the user to be in control. Electrical impulses may be adjusted in terms of their strength, frequency, and duration so that they are optimally tailored to the individual and their degree of pain.

  • Improved Circulation:
    Healing and circulation are both boosted when muscles tense and release in response to the electrical current. TENS therapy promotes your muscles to flex and relaxin repeatedly, improving your blood flow and overall health.

  • Improved Sleep Quality:
    The relief of discomfort will help the body relax. Therefore, one benefit of using a TENS device is improved sleep quality.

  • Medication Reduction:
    TENS therapy is a 100% natural pain-relieving alternative. This treatment has been shown to be beneficial in relieving pain, allowing patients to minimize their use of pharmaceutical painkillers.

  • Alleviated Muscle Strain:
    Muscles tense up with knots and spasms to prevent additional damage to injured or over-exerted muscles. TENS will help release the knots in strained muscles.

  • Alleviated Inflammation:
    When used correctly, a TENS machine can help alleviate inflammation within the muscle fibers themselves. TENs therapy is beneficial for pain relief from sciatica, back pain, and pinched nerves.

  • Improved Muscle Function:
    When combined with other methods of pain relief, such as relaxation therapy, meditation techniques, physiotherapy, or even spinal manipulation, a TENS machine can significantly improve the patient's range of motion and quality of life.

  • Safe To Use:
    TENS is a non-invasive pain management technique that carries a low risk of complications. Adhesive pads have the potential to cause skin irritation in certain persons; however, hypoallergenic pads are available as alternatives.

  • Affordable Pain Relief Solution:
    The TENS device is both more cost-effective and more accessible than alternative forms of in-patient pain therapy and pharmaceutical pain relief.

  • Versatile Application:
    The TENS device has shown efficacy in treating a wide range of conditions, from the treatment of mild strains and spasms to chronic and acute pain.

TENS treatment is effective for many patients for temporary pain relief. Pain relief might last from a few hours to a few days, depending on individual circumstances. Some patients report feeling relief during and immediately after a therapy session, while others say the relief begins a few hours afterward.

What Are The Disadvantages Of TENS Therapy?

A TENS unit is a non-invasive and effective method of treating pain that steers away from pharmaceutical treatments. Using a TENS unit is often simple and effective for most users. The primary source of its negative implications comes from overuse. TENS units can be used safely for up to 3 times a day, for approximately 10 - 30 minutes at a time.

Compared to conventional pharmaceutical treatments, this therapy has a high safety profile and low incident rate.

However, some of the negative implications include the following:

  • Allergic Reaction:
    Adhesive patches may cause an allergic reaction in certain patients; these can be supplemented with a hypoallergenic alternative.

  • Improper Use:
    Never place the electrodes where they will touch your eyes or the front of your neck. Electrodes placed on the neck have been linked to muscle spasms and a decrease in blood pressure. Electrodes placed on or near the eyes pose a risk of elevating intraocular pressure, leading to damage or even permanent blindness.

  • Discomfort:
    Some patients find the buzzing, prickling, or tingling feeling of electrical impulses during therapy to be uncomfortable.

  • Tolerance With Overuse:
    Evidence suggests that a patient's tolerance for the pain-relieving effects of TENS devices might increase with excessive use, reducing the treatment's efficacy.

When Should You Not Use TENS Therapy?

Although TENS therapy is generally well tolerated and safe for use, there are certain patients who should not use it unless advised by a doctor.

Always consult with your healthcare professional before using TENS if you have any current or previous health problems, concerns, or questions.

The following individuals are candidates for this suggestion:

  • Pregnancy:
    It is not recommended that pregnant women use TENS on their stomachs or pelvic areas.

  • Epilepsy:
    Patients with epilepsy are more likely to have seizures if electrodes are applied to their scalp or neck.

  • Heart Complications:
    Individuals with experiencing heart complications and Individuals who have had a metal or electrical implant, such as a pacemaker, implanted should avoid TENS therapy.

  • Deep Vein Thrombosis:
    TENS treatment should not be used in patients with blood clot complications because it increases blood circulation, which increases the danger of dislodging a blood clot.

  • Cancer:
    Do not use electrodes in parts of the body where cancer is known or suspected. TENS should not be used if you have had unidentified pain or an incidence of cancer within the previous 5 years.

How To Use A TENS Massage Device?

Make sure your TENS unit's battery is fully charged before use. The TENS machine features two dials to adjust the strength and duration of electrical signals. Ensure the device is turned off before placing electrodes.

Every device will come with an instruction manual; it's always good practice to consult the manual before use.

  • To prep your skin for placing electrodes, use rubbing alcohol and wait for it to dry.
  • Cover the bottom of each electrode with a small amount of gel. Applying this gel will facilitate the transmission of the electrical signal to the underlying nerves.
  • Use an adhesive patch or medical tape to secure the electrodes to your skin.
  • Connect the electrodes by inserting the pin connectors found at the end of the electrode wires.
  • Connect the electrode cables to the TENS machine.
  • Slowly adjust the dials to the desired settings.
  • You will begin feeling a tingling sensation.
  • Keep the TENS machine accessible by clipping it to your belt or storing it away in a pocket.

What Should I Do After the TENS Treatment?

  • Rotate the switches to the ‘off’ position to deactivate the device and remove the electrode wires.
  • If you are planning to undergo another TENS treatment within the same day, the electrodes may be left in place and disconnected from the device.
  • Decontaminate the area of your skin where electrodes were placed with warm soapy water and an alcohol swab.
  • Remove the gel by washing the electrodes in warm soapy water. Avoid using alcohol, as it will deteriorate the electrode's rubber coating. Note: Worn-out electrodes that do not stay in place need replacing.
  • Remove the TENS battery and exchange it with a fully charged one before using it again.

The following TENS therapy guidelines are recommended for optimal pain relief:

  • Pay close attention to the precise location of the discomfort, tenderness, or pain,
  • Never use a single pad with a TENS unit; instead, use either two places on 1- channel devices or four pads on 2- channels simultaneously.
  • Adjusting the distance between the electrode or the direction they will influence the flow of the electrical sensation to target specific areas.
  • Pads can be placed horizontally, diagonally, or vertically. Pads should always be positioned at least an inch away from one another to ensure the optimal flow of electrical current.
  • Pads should not be placed directly on joints like the knee, elbow, or ankle because the joint's movement can cause the pad to lose its adherence,

TENS Therapy Electrode Placement Guidelines

  • When the pain covers a substantial portion of your body (For example, from your lower back to the back of your knee), place one pad vertically at the painful region and the other vertically at the bottom of the painful region.
  • When the pain is more concentrated in a smaller region (e.g. calf discomfort), place pads parallel to one another on each side of the affected area.
  • When pain crosses a joint (For example, knee discomfort), place each pad horizontally and parallel over the muscle or soft tissue immediately above and below the joint.
  • When the pain is widespread, as with neck and shoulder pain, place the pads vertically on the left and right sides of your spine. Pads can be placed diagonally to encompass a greater area.

Frequently Asked Questions About The Use Of TENS Therapy

How often can you use TENS therapy?

A TENS device is safe for use multiple times a day.

  • For mild to moderate pain: Use 1 - 3 times a day for up to half an hour at a time.
  • For moderate, severe, or chronic pain: Use 4 times a day for up to an hour at a time.

How long does TENS therapy last?

TENS units are portable and effective in relieving pain for extended durations. You can expect the pain relief to last anywhere from five minutes to twenty-four hours. The degree of alleviation usually varies according to the nature and severity of the pain being treated.

Does TENS therapy help sciatica?

TENS has been shown to be effective in treating sciatica pain, including the radiating, often incapacitating shooting sensations that many patients report. It's a harmless, nonaddictive pain reliever that can reduce the discomfort associated with sciatica and restore mobility.

Using a TENS unit for sciatic pain is no different from using it for any other type of pain; the process is straightforward and easy to understand. TENS treatment can be initiated by first fixing the electrodes to the device, placing the device on the patient's lower back, and making the necessary adjustments for comfort. Targeting different regions in the lower back will help restore normal sensation in the limbs.

ApriaHome: Providing Research, Education, And Solutions for Pain Relief

As professionals in medical equipment distribution, we have a deep understanding of the origins, manifestations, and treatment solutions for various conditions causing chronic pain. Chronic pain can significantly affect a patient's quality of life. We have sourced leading TENS therapy solutions in the hopes of providing affordable, accessible, and natural pain relief. With ApriaHome, you have the finest medical equipment at your fingertips, thanks to our extensive global sourcing efforts.

No matter what degree of pain you or your loved one is experiencing, TENS therapy can provide targeted relief. Looking to get started with TENS therapy from the comfort of your own home?

The ApriaHome At-Home TENS Therapy Kit

TENS treatment may be provided by physical therapists, acupuncturists, and other healthcare providers. TENS devices are also available on prescription for at-home use. Various similar electrical stimulation devices are available over the counter. Always consult your doctor or a healthcare expert and follow the manufacturer's directions carefully before using the device at home.

A TENS unit is a device that sends small electrical currents to targeted body parts. This therapy technique sends electrical pulses through the skin to start your body's own painkillers, while connected to a series of electrodes and using electricity to help relieve pain.

When it comes to mild, moderate, acute, or chronic pain, you don't have to suffer in silence. ApriaHome carries an extensive range of treatment solutions available from the comfort of your own home. Order now and receive free nationwide delivery on all purchases over $99.

Need advice or more information? Our friendly and experienced team is available on call at (800) 780-1508 between 8:00 am - 10:00 pm EST. Get in touch today.


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