Karen Best Wright, B.S. Community Health Education

TENS, what is it? How does it work? When should you use one? When should you not? What do healthcare professionals say? What do users say? These are all good questions that will be addressed in this article.

What is a TENS machine? 

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation; transcutaneous means through unbroken skin. A TENS machine, or a TENS Unit, is a small portable electrical device that transmits tiny electrical impulses through the skin via reusable adhesive pads. The TENS machine is recognized to be safe and effective for various types of pain and unlike drugs has no known side-effects.

How does a TENS machine work?

It is believed that the electrical signals affect pain in two ways, either by blocking the pain messages before they reach the brain or by helping the body release endorphins, the body’s own pain killing chemical.

When should you use a TENS machine?

TENS machines have been used successfully to relieve a variety of pain, including aching joints, muscular pain, and headaches. The TENS machine is also commonly used to relieve sports injury pain, post operative pain, and even menstrual pain. Read the instructions carefully that come with your TENS unit, and ask you healthcare provider about using a TENS machine for your condition.

When should you not use a TENS machine?

Before using a TENS machine, know what is causing the pain. Pain is the body’s way of warning that something is amiss. Make sure the pain is not being caused by something that needs medical attention. Never use a TENS machine or any other method of pain relief to mask undiagnosed pain as this could result in unnecessary harm. Do not use a TENS machine on the head, in the front or on the sides of the neck, or when using a pacemaker. Pregnant women and patients who have heart disease or epilepsy should seek medical advice before using a TENS device.

What do healthcare professionals say?

Many healthcare professionals, including physical therapists, chiropractors, and osteopaths recommend using a TENS unit. The American Academy of Neurology analyzed studies that indicated that the TENS unit did not help chronic lower back pain. However, this study only examined people with unknown causes of chronic back pain. It did not examine people with acute back pain or with other pain that has been reportedly alleviated by a TENS unit. The study also reported that there was good evidence that a TENS unit helped treat diabetic nerve pain. Since there are no known side effects, some doctors recommend using a TENS machine when medication does not work. However, other doctors recommend using a TENS machine before resorting to unnecessary pain medication.

What do users say?

The TENS machine would not be so popular if people did not find it effective in helping to reduce and manage pain. It is not going to work for all people in all situations, but it is definitely worth trying as the following statements by users indicate.

“I used my TENS machine daily after I injured my knee. It helped me manage the pain until my knee healed.”

“When stress causes my neck and shoulders to ache, which causes extreme pain when turning my head, I use my TENS machine. It definitely helps.”

“My husband did not find it helpful when he broke his back, but I find it works wonders in helping me reduce the pain in my shoulder.”

“Even if my TENS unit doesn’t work for everything, I certainly wouldn’t want to do without it. It’s a staple in my first-aid supplies.”

When researching for any FDA recalls for TENS units, I only found one in 2007. That was for the possibility of the plastic case cracking due to the manufacturer of the device not following specifications. For an effective and safe alternative to pain medication, ask your healthcare professional about the use of a TENS machine. It is a simple, portable, electrical device run by batteries that is easy to use anywhere.

Now that you have learned the benefits of electrotherapy, check out our collection of TENS Units



Diabetic Nerve Pain

Using TENS for pain control: the state of the evidence

What Makes Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Work?