Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, known simply as “TENS” or electrotherapy is a non-invasive therapy used in relieving numbness by applying low-voltage, electrical nerve stimulation to the skin near the site of the pain.
A TENS unit is a device that can be as small as a pocket watch, or as big as a portable radio. This device helps in reducing various types of pain (from period pain, arthritis, sports injuries, neck/back pain, and other similar conditions.
While a TENS unit will not cure pain, the temporary relief it brings could mean the world to some people suffering from intense labor pain, sleep-depriving back pain, and so on.
How Does a Tens Unit Work?
A Tens unit is a drug-free device, which means you don’t need kind of nebules, tablets, or other prescription meds for the device to work properly.
It works by stimulating the body’s release of natural pain killers (encephalins and endorphins), which reduces a person’s sense of pain. Each TENS electrical pulse blocks and prevents pain messages to reach the brain.
Every Tens unit contains electrode pads (cloth-like sticky patches), which you’ll place over a particular body part. The device will then send tiny, electrical currents (ranging from 10 Hz to 50 Hz frequencies) to the nerves of this specific spot.
You can turn the frequency up or down throughout the session.
A typical TENS session lasts 15 minutes, but it can be repeated as often as required. Know that since the TENS unit only result in temporary effect, multiple sessions may be needed for longer pain relief. Of course, the effectiveness will still vary depending on your current condition.
TENS Unit Benefits
There is no study to back up the “permanent” pain relief benefits of using a TENS unit. However, a study has shown that fibromyalgia patients receive temporary relief from pain with a TENS unit.
If you’re interested in this device, but is trying to find a reason to bite, here are 3 surefire benefits of a TENS unit you might have overlooked:
1) Reduce Pain Meds
This device will not cure period pain, postoperative pain, joint pain, neck and back pain, as well as pain resulting from sports injuries and conditions like arthritis, spinal cord injuries, endometriosis, multiple sclerosis (and so on).
However, using a TENS unit can definitely reduce pain temporarily, which in turn, lessen the amount of pain medication a person takes and prevent addiction and other adverse effects of long-term medication.
TENS units are small and portable. You can carry it around anywhere and even use it while traveling or in public places. These devices are designed so discretely that you can clip it onto your belt or hide in your pocket while in use.
Every person has his/her own pain tolerance, health conditions, and preferences. The good thing about using a TENS unit is that it is designed with controls you can customize to reach the level of pain relief desired.
These controls include intensity (that you can increase/decrease), frequency (number of pulses per second) and duration (the length it takes the current to reach your skin through every pulse).
When it comes to adjusting frequency, users with intense pain can go with low frequency (1 to 20 cycles per second), while those with manageable pain is best for high frequency (80 to 120 cycles per second).
Tens Unit Side Effects
In general, it is safe to use a tens machine even with extended use. However, it is not recommended if you are pregnant, suffer from epilepsy, or have a pacemaker. It is never allowed to be used overnight while you sleep, worn while driving, or submerged in water as you swim.
Some people suffer from muscle twitching, muscle soreness or pain after continuous electrical stimulation pulses from the TENS unit. This can be caused by high intensity settings and solved with easily by adjusting intensity until twitching stops. In some cases, overusing the TENS machine may be the culprit to muscle pain.
A few TENS users report allergic reactions to the pads, but this can quickly be remedied by switching to latex-free pads.
If you continue to experience any of these negative effects even if you changed how you use your TENS, visit your health care provider.
How to Use a Tens Unit
TENS has been used safely since the 1960’s, although stone carvings dating back to 2500 BC were discovered depicting ancient Roman physicians using electric fish to treat certain health problems.
The device itself has changed its design throughout the years, but the concept remains the same. As such, using a TENS device is similar regardless of brand or style.
1) Test battery – A TENS unit usually runs with battery, so before use, make sure that the battery pack works or is fully charged. If the device has knobs for controlling frequencies, ensure these knobs are turned off before use.
2) Placing Electrodes – Don’t just place the electrodes on your skin. Clean your skin with alcohol and let dry before placing the electrodes. Apply a thin coat of gel at the bottom of the electrodes and place them on your skin. Cover it with medical tape or sticker patch to prevent it from moving. Of course, electrodes placement will depend where your pain is located.
3) Fix wires – Hook the pin connectors to the electrodes, and plug the other end to the TENS machine.
4) Adjust settings – Once you’ve turned on the knob, slowly adjust the settings until you feel a tingling sensation.
5) Let it do its magic – The TENS unit should be able to provide relief right away, but each session could take 20 to 30 minutes so you’d be able to take advantage of its effects.
Wrap Up: Is it worth the investment?
Cost-wise, over-the-counter TENS units can cost somewhere between $20 and $100. TENS devices like the truMedic PL-009 and HealthmateForever YK15AB with smaller displays are in the $20s range, while those with full display (similar to NURSAL rechargeable Tens unit) go for about $50.
The initial investment for the machine is worth the money since you can use it over and over again. Running costs for the replacement pads can add up, depending on how many people use the device and how many uses each pad is replaced, but it’s still relatively cheap (around $5 to $20). If the device bought doesn’t come with rechargeable batteries, you might also have to buy batteries regularly for the unit to work properly.
A TENS machine is a good alternative for pain management meds, since there’s no chance of addiction, overdosing, drowsiness, and other bad effects of meds. It’s also non-invasive and super-portable, so you can go about your day even while wearing the device.