TENS--or Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation--is a non-invasive method of pain relief and can be used alone or in addition to prescriptions or over-the-counter pain-relieving medications. TENS uses electricity to decrease pain by exciting sensory nerves. TENS is used in different ways, depending on the targeted mechanism of pain relief. Research has shown that when used properly, TENS provides significantly greater pain relief than a placebo treatment. TENS research is substantial in both the clinic and research lab.

TENS generally refers to any electrical stimulation using skin surface electrodes to stimulate  nerves, though it most commonly refers to the use of electrical stimulation to provide pain relief. There are two theories about how TENS works.

  1. The electric current stimulates nerve cells that block the transmission of pain signals. This then changes your perception of pain.
  2. Nerve stimulation raises the level of your body’s natural pain-killing chemicals. These chemicals--commonly referred to as endorphins--then block the perception of pain.

Using TENS has been shown to reduce pain for a variety of diagnoses, including:

  • Low back pain
  • Acute pain
  • Chronic pain
  • Pelvic
  • Pain after surgery
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Primary dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps)
  • Diabetic neuropathy

There are some situations for which TENS should not be used. 

Do not use TENS close to an area where an electronic device has been implanted. TENS could cause these devices to malfunction.

  • When pregnant, do not apply TENS therapy to the abdomen; pelvic area; lower back. (However, TENS can be used for labor pain.)
  • Do not apply electrodes to areas of the body where there is known or suspected cancer. Do not use TENS if you have undiagnosed pain and a history of cancer in the last 5 years.
  • For those with epilepsy. Do not apply electrodes to your head, neck or shoulders. The impulses could cause seizures.
  • Deep vein thrombosis. Do not use TENS as it may increase blood circulation, dislodging a blood clot.
  • A bleeding disorder or recent or actively bleeding tissue. TENS therapy could increase bleeding at the tissue site or increase the risk of bleeding in persons with bleeding disorders.
  • Do not apply TENS therapy to the chest if you have heart disease, heart failure or arrhythmias.

If interested in using TENS, check with your doctor or healthcare professional before using the device. Carefully follow the instructions of the device manufacturer.

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