When you’re hunting for a novel therapy to address your chronic pain, looking into a TENS unit is very tempting. TENS units seem to offer everyone the ability to take their analgesia into their hands from the comfort of their home.
But are TENS units worth the modest cost? Is TENS effective, or is it a lot of hot air? In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into TENS machines so that you can figure out whether they might be right for you.
We’ll start by discussing the upsides of using a TENS machine.
TENS machines are excellent ways of noninvasively reducing your musculoskeletal pain. Especially if you are already using other analgesics without success, TENS units can make the difference between suffering and tranquility.
The pros of using TENS can be summarized as:
Importantly, TENS was found to be 96% effective in reducing pain during childbirth. Unfortunately, many hospitals don’t offer TENS machines, but they may allow patients to bring in their unit. Using TENS during childbirth was not correlated with any negative events or even side effects.
TENS units can reduce the pain in the area that their current passes through. They do this by changing the sensory neurons to be less willing to send signals of pain to other sensory neurons affected by the current.
This effect resides a few hours after the neurons have been exposed to the current. The major “pro” here is that the pain neurons are desensitized but other important sensory neurons, like those responsible for detecting heat or pressure, are not.
This means that if you use a TENS unit, your pain will reside, but you will still have the presence of mind to realize that you are hurting yourself in the area that you treated if you are doing so. For other analgesics like opioids, this is not a sure thing whatsoever.
With alternative analgesics, it is entirely possible to take your medication and then unintentionally cause serious damage to yourself which you are unaware of because you cannot feel pain.
The neurons, once desensitized by these other therapies, cannot give you any of their normal signals which you would use to keep yourself safe. So the fact that TENS does not numb while it reduces pain is a big factor.
TENS is also effective against many kinds of pain. Any kind of pain that is on the surface of your skin or anywhere in your muscles can be treated by TENS. The only question is how much intensity the treatment should be.
For muscle pain, you can have your TENS unit channel electricity through the meat of your muscles. This is safe and should help to address your pain very quickly in a short therapeutic session. The pain will stay away for at least a few hours afterward.
If the pain is on the surface of your skin, it will be even easier to set your TENS electrodes to reduce the pain. Identify the problem area, and place the electrodes such that the current will pass through the nexus of the painful area.
If that doesn’t work, you can easily try another technique: passing the current through the bundle of nerves above the painful area.
You may need to consult an anatomy textbook to get the best idea about electrode placement, but a rule of thumb is that placing the electrodes closer to your brain than the pain area will help.
There are not too many cons to using a TENS machine. The most common cons can be described as:
You may notice that most of these cons pertain to incorrectly using the unit rather than the unit itself. Under ideal conditions, most of these drawbacks are not relevant.
For instance, so long as you avoid using the TENS unit on broken skin, you won’t suffer from the discomfort of a bit too much current running into your muscle. Intact skin provides more electrical resistance. If there is a break in your skin, the more conductive area underneath will commandeer the current and cause you problems.
Likewise, it’s entirely possible to use the TENS unit near an infected wound site provided you take the appropriate precautions. Cover the wound itself with a bandage and a waterproof seal, then use your TENS unit laterally around the wound.
So long as the current is not crossing the wound site, you will be fine. You should probably disinfect the electrodes afterward.
If you have a surface-level tumor, you can still treat the pain which it or its treatment causes without running afoul of the rule against passing current through the tumor itself. The reason why you are not supposed to pass current through the tumor is that it may stimulate cancer cells to grow faster.
So, if you want to work around a tumor or other group of quickly growing and potentially dangerous cells, you need to make sure that there is no current passing through the compromised area.
Much like when using the TENS unit near a wound, you will be safe so long as you place your electrodes laterally from the problem area. For tumors which are pinching nerves and causing pain, this is especially easy.
A rule of thumb regarding electrode placement with neuronally referred pain is that you should be placing it above the problem area relative to where your brain is located.
In other words, if you have a painful lump pinching a nerve right beneath your elbow, placing your sets of electrodes above the elbow will ensure that the nerves there do not refer as much of the pain to your brain.
Given these pros and cons, you may be wondering if the TENS unit is worth your money and your health. TENS units are indeed a good proposition for people who are struggling with chronic pain.
The reason that TENS units are worthwhile is that they have the potential to change the way your cells send signals of pain to each other in a safe and reversible fashion.
Other therapies accomplish this by distorting your neurons chemically, which can cause addiction, withdrawal, and numerous side effects. Depending on your genetics, you might respond to the analgesics, or you might not.
It’s also possible to partially respond but experience unpredictable side effects which you won’t want to keep having.
TENS, on the other hand, is a more binary proposition. Either the electrical current will allay your pain with no unintended effects, or you need to work on your electrode placement a bit more.
There are no side effects to worry about so long as you use the unit as it was intended. You won’t need any costly prescriptions, nor will you need to worry about addiction. As far as an analgesic therapy goes, TENS checks all the important boxes.
Finally, you can use TENS alongside any other analgesic regimen, so the chances of you achieving relief via a combination of methods are all but assured.