A TENS machine is a battery-operated device used to manage and reduce pain if you have arthritis, shoulder pain or a sports injury. Read about how to use a TENS unit for chronic pain, including the benefits and potential side effects.
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What is a TENS machine?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This machine is a small device with leads connected to sticky pads. These electrode pads attach to different areas of your body, sending small electrical impulses to stimulate nerves and stop pain signals going to your spinal cord and brain.
For many patients, a TENS machine can lead to muscle relaxation, pain relief and the stimulation of endorphins. These hormones are seen as the body's natural painkillers, blocking the perception of pain.
While using your device, you may feel a tingling, buzzing sensation, but this is normal. The machine will typically have two electrode pads, but you may be able to get a machine with four electrode pads if you need a greater electrical nerve stimulation intensity for your condition.
It's worth noting that using TENS for pain relief is not currently backed up by scientific evidence, although there is some anecdotal evidence to suggest that it can help patients with conditions like arthritis. Speak to a doctor before trying out a unit for yourself, as its efficacy can depend on your specific needs.
How to use a TENS machine
Before you use your TENS machine for the first time, make sure to seek advice from a doctor about how to use it properly for your condition. All machines will work differently. However, the basic mechanics of using one of these machines are the same.
First, attach the pads to the painful areas of your body. This may be your legs or your abdominal area, for example. As a basic guide, place the pads on either side of the painful area and make sure they are at least 2.5cm apart. You should only do this when the machine is switched off.
Once you've attached the pads, turn on the machine. You should feel a tingling sensation from electrical stimulation. A dial on the machine allows you to choose the strength of the electrical impulses. It's important to start low and gradually increase the strength, especially if this is your first time using TENS.
The tingling sensation should feel strong but still comfortable. You'll know the sensation is too strong if it feels uncomfortable, and you can decrease the intensity at any time for a reduced sensation.
After you've finished, switch off the machine and remove the pads. You can use your machine for relief throughout the day and even use it for a few hours at a time. However, don't use TENS while operating machinery or in the shower.
Where to get a TENS machine
You can get transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation equipment from a physical therapy specialist and other healthcare professionals. Your local clinic may be able to lend you a machine to use at home, or you can buy your own machine from most pharmacies. Make sure to do your research before you get your machine, as there are a few different models.
TENS is not intended to treat or cure chronic pain, but it can provide short-term relief and reduce how much medication you may need to take. If you're worried about the addictive side effects of painkillers, a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine is a simple and safe treatment to try out.
Benefits of a TENS machine for chronic pain
TENS machines have many benefits, and they are most commonly used to relieve pain for those with arthritis, sports injuries and acute pain.
The electric current in a TENS unit can stimulate nerve cells that block pain messages from getting to the brain - a big benefit for those who need pain relief. If you struggle with arthritis, you can get a special machine with big dials or controls to make sure you can still use it if you have limited hand movement.
It's thought that TENS works best when relieving activity-induced pain, so you may want to use your machine while walking or exercising if these activities are particularly painful. You can also use a TENS unit for period pain and pelvic pain related to endometriosis. Placing electrodes on acupuncture points may improve the efficacy of your device, and many patients use acupuncture and TENS in conjunction.
You can learn more about managing chronic pain in our article about beating shoulder pain through exercise.
Side effects of TENS machines
Using a TENS unit for chronic pain relief is typically a very safe practice. However, it's important to follow precautions for the best results.
Some people may experience allergic reactions to the electrode pads, leading to redness and irritated skin. You may also feel twitching or soreness in your muscles around the painful area. Make sure to read all information for your transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine before use. You can adjust the electrode pads and intensity level if you feel uncomfortable.
TENS pads aren't suitable for certain areas of the body, including your temples, mouth, eyes, head or neck, varicose veins or irritated skin.
Can anyone use a TENS machine?
Although TENS machines are very safe, you shouldn't use this treatment if you have the following conditions:
- Heart problems.
- If you have a pacemaker, electrical or metal implant.
- Overactive bladder.
You should also speak to a doctor if there's a chance you're pregnant, as you shouldn't use TENS in early pregnancy. If you have high blood pressure, TENS is generally considered safe - but seek medical advice before trying it for the first time.
Using a TENS machine to manage chronic pain
A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine is a convenient way to relieve pain. Although there is no conclusive evidence about the effects of TENS, many patients use this treatment for medical concerns like arthritis and shoulder pain. You can also use your TENS unit for sports industries or period pain relief.
It's important to speak to your doctor before you use a TENS device for the first time, as some people can't use these machines - and you'll need to use it properly to ease your specific condition.