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12-month warranty
Same day dispatch
Professionally endorsed

Electric Nerve Stimulator: A Guide on How to Operate a TENS Machine

iTENS small and large TENS machines with refill gel pads

An electric nerve stimulator is a device often found in pain clinics and physical therapy centres. A health professional assesses the patient and determines the appropriate settings based on individual conditions. It involves placing the electrode pads on the skin near the pain area and adjusting the frequency and intensity levels. The process is easy, and individuals can use the device on their own. Portable versions are available for personal use.

Nerve stimulators, also known as Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) devices, have gained popularity in recent years as a form of non-invasive pain relief. It is also a drug-free alternative for people who want to reduce their intake of medicines. TENS are helpful for a wide range of conditions, from acute to chronic pain. This article introduces new users to how TENS machines work, their benefits, and how to operate the device.

How Does a TENS Electric Nerve Stimulator Work?

A TENS electric nerve stimulator sends low-voltage electrical currents through the electrodes placed on the skin. It often feels like a mild tingling sensation that creates a pleasing effect. In addition, the electrical currents travel from the skin to the nerve fibres, disrupting pain signals going to the brain. As a result, the brain receives less information from the receptor, reducing the perception of pain.

TENS also induces the release of endorphins. These natural painkillers bind to opioid receptors in the central nervous system. They inhibit the nerve cells from sending pain messages to the brain, alleviating pain sensations. It also helps enhance mood and reduce stress that may contribute to pain.

The TENS device consists of a handheld control unit and sets of electrode pads. The control unit allows users to adjust the settings of the electrical impulses. Most machines offer different modes and a range of settings, allowing individuals to customise their treatment. Moreover, TENS devices come in traditional wired set-up or wireless versions for convenience and portability.

Main Theories at Work

  • Pain Gate Control Theory: This theory suggests that the electrical pulses from a TENS machine can activate the large sensory nerve fibres. This effectively closes the “gates” in the spinal cord for pain signals to reach the brain. It also proposes that the electrical stimulation overwhelms the brain, making pain less noticeable.
  • Endorphin Release Theory: It suggests that the electric currents trigger the release of natural opioids like endorphins.
  • Blood Circulation Promotion: TENS machines can increase blood flow to the affected area. It helps in reducing inflammation and relaxing tense muscles. Consequently, it facilitates the healing of damaged tissues and restores the range of motion.

An elderly man with knee pain while outdoors

Benefits of Using a TENS Electric Nerve Stimulator

Using an electric nerve stimulator offers several benefits for individuals experiencing pain and discomfort. TENS therapy is a non-invasive and drug-free method of pain relief. It provides a natural approach to managing pain without the side effects associated with medications. It also reduces the need for more intensive treatments like surgery.

Furthermore, it provides targeted pain relief. Users can direct the electrical stimulation directly to the area of pain. It eliminates or minimises the risk of affecting other body parts. It also addresses the affected nerve endings or muscles, providing immediate results. Likewise, TENS allows individuals to find the optimal level of pain relief.

TENS machines are convenient and portable. Individuals can use it anytime they need and wherever they go. Moreover, they have a user-friendly operation, making them easy for people to use. Individuals can easily incorporate the device into their daily routine with straightforward controls and clear instructions. It is a cost-effective alternative to frequent visits to a physical therapist or pain management specialist.

Conditions Treated with TENS

TENS therapy is a versatile pain relief method for various painful conditions. Firstly, it is highly recommended for individuals dealing with chronic pain such as rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and sciatica. It is also effective in alleviating pain due to damage to peripheral nerves. These conditions often cause weakness, numbness, and radiating pain.

Secondly, it efficiently eases acute pain like muscle soreness, strains, sprains, and postoperative pain. Musculoskeletal pain is often due to overuse of the muscles during exercise, work, or other physical activities. Additionally, many women opt for a TENS unit to manage labour pain and menstrual cramps.

A woman using wireless TENS machines on the shoulder and wrist

How to Operate a TENS Electric Nerve Stimulator

Operating a TENS electric nerve stimulator is simple. However, it may need several tries for new users before they can find the correct settings for their pain relief. To start the treatment, first, identify the pain area. Ensure the skin is clean and dry before placing the electrodes. It helps to improve the conductivity of the electrical impulses.

The next step is to attach the electrode pads. Peel off the protective backing and stick the pads on the side of the sore spot. They should be evenly spaced at two to three inches apart. Once in place, turn on the device and adjust the pulse frequency and duration according to the type of pain. For example, low-frequency TENS is ideal for chronic pain, while high-frequency stimulation is best for acute pain.

Many devices have pre-set programs or standard settings for quick and efficient use. Users may simply have to select a desired treatment from the menu to start the session. It does not require manual adjustment, making it safe and convenient. Moreover, start with a low intensity and gradually increase until reaching a comfortable level of stimulation.

Safety Considerations

It is vital to keep the safety considerations in mind when using a TENS machine. Individuals should consult a healthcare professional before using any medical device. They can guide patients on the proper usage and recommended settings. Also, TENS may not be suitable for people with medical conditions like heart illnesses, epilepsy, and implanted electronic devices.

Always keep the stimulation levels within the tolerable range. High frequencies or intensities may cause discomfort or skin irritation. Avoid using TENS on open wounds, broken skin, or near the eyes. Furthermore, avoid prolonged use of more than one hour to prevent side effects.


The TENS electric nerve stimulator can be a valuable tool for managing various types of pain. It works by sending low-voltage electrical currents to stimulate endorphin release and block pain signals. The device has adjustable settings to control the current flow based on varying comfort levels. With the right amount of stimulation, TENS can help relieve joint pain, neuropathic pain, and sports injuries. Therefore, it is vital to follow the proper steps for operating the device.

The general guidelines to remember are to identify the proper electrode pad placement and the correct settings. Always start at a low-intensity level to avoid overwhelming the nerves. Individuals may consult a health professional for advice and other precautions. Following the safety measures can help prevent any potential risks or side effects. In summary, proper usage and safety considerations are essential for effective treatment of pain. TENS machines are available online, such as the wireless iTENS at iTENS Australia.

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