How Does a TENS Device Work?

If you have chronic conditions that you have tried to treat with conventional treatments, it may be time to consider trying a TENS unit for relief. TENS is an abbreviation for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A TENS unit contains a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator (TENS). A TENS machine delivers electrical pulses along the skin surface to the area it is intended to treat. This type of stimulation has been used in the treatment of pain since the 1980s.

A TENS unit works by delivering short bursts of direct current (DC) to a point on the body. When the current comes into contact with a pressure-sensitive nerve, the brain registers the presence of pain. The amount of current delivered to the area determines how much pain is experienced. The electrodes are placed either close to the pressure-sensitive nerve or in a location that will not interfere with the patient’s life. Often, multiple electrodes are used in combination to provide a wider range of stimulation.

TENS-unitWhile a TENS machine can be very effective for some people, several side effects may occur. Some people may experience pain during or after the treatment session. Some people may also feel discomfort when the electrodes are placed in certain areas. Some people may not experience any side effects, while others may experience severe pain and an increased risk of infection. If you consider purchasing a TENS unit, you should discuss the possible side effects with your doctor or health care provider.

While the TENS unit has been approved for the treatment of pain in the neck, legs, head, shoulder, and joint injuries, studies show that it may not be effective in the treatment of conditions such as chronic pain, migraines, cluster headaches, phantom limb pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder. More research is currently being conducted on the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It is also being studied in patients with psychiatric conditions and those with congenital disabilities. More research is being done on transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation to treat arthritis and chronic pain conditions in the neck, legs, head, shoulder, and joint injuries. In addition, it is being considered for the treatment of other neurological conditions, including stroke, meningitis, and cerebral palsy. More studies are also being done on transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation to treat conditions such as epilepsy, stroke, and MS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

Studies indicate that TENS may be helpful in the treatment of back pain conditions such as lower and upper cervicalgia. However, no studies specifically address TENS’ effectiveness in treating the pain associated with conditions such as herniated discs, osteoarthritis, and facet joint pain. Studies show that when a patient is placed on a machine that emits a constant transcutaneous electrical current, it relieves pain, improves function, and enhances the quality of life. Because these types of electrical stimulation machines are safe and non-invasive, many people choose to use them to help relieve their back pain or other conditions. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation to treat conditions such as chronic back pain, migraine headaches, toothache, tension headaches, neck and shoulder pain, and phantom limb pain.

The strengths and limitations of TENS treatment are being researched and evaluated. Currently, there are no known serious side effects of using a tens unit for pain relief. Although TENS units have been used for years and have successfully provided pain relief, there are no FDA-approved guidelines to indicate how much current exposure is needed to achieve a pain-free level of comfort. Patients should discuss how long they want to continue receiving treatment with their doctor and any restrictions on using the device. Patients should also be aware that TENS treatment may not be effective for some conditions and that continued use of these devices may eventually lead to a decreased tolerance to electrical stimulation over time.