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TENS for Labour Pain Relief: Is It Safe?

A pregnant experience severe uterine contractions

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) offers pregnant women a non-invasive and natural form of pain relief from labour contractions. It utilises low-voltage electrical currents to reduce pain sensations through electrodes attached to the skin. Many women have used TENS for labour pain relief without any harm or adverse events. Despite being generally safe, it is vital to understand how it works to avoid potential risks. However, it is crucial to consult a doctor before using a TENS device.

There are several methods of pain relief during labour. The conventional treatments include pain medications, epidural blocks, nitrous oxide, and TENS. Among these methods, TENS therapy is considered a safer and more natural option. In this article, we will explore the benefits of TENS for labour pain, its principles, and the pad placement guide. By knowing its mechanisms, individuals can use the device more effectively.

Overview of TENS for Labour Pain Relief

TENS is commonly used in pain clinics or rehabilitation centres to manage acute and chronic pain like injuries and neuropathy. It is a non-pharmacological treatment method involving the electrical stimulation of the nerves. Thus, it can provide instant relief without the use of drugs. It is a suitable alternative for people with harsh reactions to medicines.

In recent years, the use of TENS for labour pain relief has been increasing due to its safety and effectiveness. TENS have not caused adverse events to the baby or women in labour. Moreover, it enables women to control their pain relief through the adjustable settings of the device. It works best when used at the first stages of labour and throughout the active birth.

Furthermore, there are specialised TENS machines for birth pain. The device typically comes with handheld remote control and adhesive electrode pads. Labour TENS units have a boost button to send an extra power surge during painful contractions. Hence, it eliminates the need to change the settings every now and then.

Advantages Over the Other Treatment Solutions

  • A TENS machine is non-invasive. It does not involve incisions or injections, which can be risky or uncomfortable.
  • TENS is a drug-free method. It does not have the side effects usually associated with analgesics, such as diarrhoea or damage to vital organs.
  • It provides localised pain relief. It can target specific areas of the body through electrode pad placement.
  • TENS is customisable, allowing users a sense of control during labour. Women can adjust the frequency, pulse duration, and intensity levels according to their preferences.
  • A TENS machine is portable and can be used at home at the onset of labour.

iTENS wireless TENS machine in large size and refill gel pads

Principles Behind the Use of TENS for Labour Pain Relief

TENS for labour pain relief works based on two main principles: the Pain Gate Control Theory and the Endogenous Opioid Release Theory. The first theory suggests that electrical stimulation can affect the pain mechanisms of the body. Flooding the nervous system with mild electrical currents can cause the nerve fibres in the spinal cord to close. Consequently, it blocks the pain signals from reaching the brain.

The second theory involves the release of endorphins. These natural hormones give analgesic effects and improve the sense of well-being. TENS can induce the production of endorphins, contributing to significant relief during delivery. In addition, it helps to increase blood circulation in the area, relaxing sore and cramping muscles.

Furthermore, the tingling sensations from a TENS machine can provide distraction and sensory stimulation. It helps divert the attention away from the pain of labour. While using the device, the doctor or midwife can monitor the blood pressure and ensure the electrical stimulation is not causing harm. Overall, TENS can reduce the perception of pain and create a more positive birthing experience.

Effectiveness and Safeness of Electrotherapy

Several controlled studies have shown positive results when using TENS for pain management during labour. The primary outcomes include reduction of labour pain, particularly the intensity of uterine contractions and lower back pain. However, some cases necessitate alternative therapies, like sterile water injections and nitrous oxide during the active phase.

When it comes to safety, TENS does not interfere with childbirth or at any stage of labour. Women can also withdraw the use of the device without affecting their obstetric care. However, individuals should be aware of the possible side effects, including skin redness or irritation at the electrode placement sites.

Operating the TENS settings in the smartphone app

Proper Pad Placement When Using a TENS for Labour Pain Relief

Proper pad placement is crucial when using TENS for labour pain relief.  The key placement of TENS electrodes is at the lower back. Position one set of electrodes below the ribcage and another just above the buttocks. Place the pads on either side of the spine two to three inches apart.

By positioning the pads at the sacral region, the electrical currents can target the nerves responsible for transmitting pain signals from the uterus and lower abdomen. Moreover, it helps to reduce contractions or cramping that extend to the lower back. In some cases, women may put extra electrodes on the legs for enhanced pain relief.

It is crucial not to place the electrodes directly over the abdomen, as this may increase painful uterine contractions. Additionally, it is important to avoid putting the pads near the head, neck, heart, and directly over the spine. Also, avoid areas with open wounds, infected skin, or decreased sensations. The placement should be comfortable for the woman and should not cause any discomfort or irritation.

Safety Precautions

There are several safety precautions that need to be considered when using a TENS device for pain management during labour. While it is generally safe, people with severe chronic pain and conditions should consult a doctor before use. This includes heart diseases, epilepsy, cancer, and people with implanted devices.

Furthermore, do not use the TENS machine for water birth. Always remove the device when entering the water to prevent electrical shocks and other risks. Equally important, do not use the device near the abdomen during the early weeks of pregnancy. The electrical stimulation may cause the induction of labour.


Employing TENS for labour pain relief can be a safe and effective method. It works by hindering the transmission of pain signals to the brain and releasing endorphins. To use the electric nerve stimulator, a birth partner can position the electrodes on the lower back and start the stimulation. Women may adjust the settings or use the boost mode to give them a sense of control over their pain relief.

The effectiveness of electrical nerve stimulation for the management of pain may vary with each individual. Thus, it is crucial to consult with a healthcare professional and discuss the suitability of a TENS device for labour and other chronic pain conditions. It is also important to follow the safety precautions. Nevertheless, it can be a valuable tool for maternal pain relief. Lastly, women may also use a portable TENS machine for managing post-delivery pain and in future labour.

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