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Professionally endorsed

TENS for Labour Pain Relief: How It Works, Benefits, & Safety Considerations

A pregnant woman at work caressing her baby bump

Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation is an electrotherapy technique that provides relief from acute pain and chronic pain conditions. This alternative for pain management can also help alleviate childbirth pain. As such, using TENS for labour pain relief is growing in popularity. It provides non-invasive and drug-free pain by sending low-voltage electric currents to the body. This triggers the pain gate mechanism and endorphin production. However, consulting an obstetrician is crucial before using it for labour pain.

TENS therapy provides natural relief for several types of pain. It is a versatile and safe pain management method that many use for acute and chronic pain experiences. Pregnant women can purchase a personal device or rent one to use during the birthing process. It is a battery-powered machine that has user-friendly features for effective use. This article will present information on how TENS works, the benefits of TENS therapy, and the safety considerations.

How TENS for Labour Pain Relief Works

A TENS for labour pain relief uses low-voltage electrical pulses to activate mechanisms in the body to provide relief during painful experiences. These currents travel from the machine to the skin and the underlying nerves using electrode pads. The operator can control the stimulation settings by adjusting the frequency, intensity, and pulse width setting levels according to the needs of the user.

High frequencies range from 50 to 120 Hz. It can trigger the pain gate mechanism. This can provide relief within minutes by interrupting pain signals. As such, it is frequently used to alleviate severe pain. Moreover, high-frequency stimulation can induce vasodilation. This improvement in blood circulation can provide distracting sensations that divert attention from the pain of contractions.

Meanwhile, a low-frequency stimulation is between 2 and 10 Hz. This setting can trigger the production of endogenous opioids. It also reduces the perception of pain. Endogenous opioids bind to opioid receptors to reduce pain sensations. In particular, endorphins reduce anxiety and stress, helping to provide significant relief in labour.

Main Theories at Work

Although the exact mechanisms of how TENS works are not completely understood, these are the two main theories that explain it:

  • Gate Control Theory of Pain: This was proposed by Melzack and Wall during the 1960s. It suggests that electrical stimulation can induce non-painful sensory nerves to block the transmission of pain signals to the brain. Essentially, it closes the “gate” in the spinal cord that allows pain signals to pass through, providing relief.
  • Endorphin Release Theory: This theory posits that TENS therapy triggers the release of endorphins, which are natural pain-relieving hormones in the body. By increasing endorphin production, people can experience lasting relief.

A pregnant woman lying down and talking to her partner

Benefits of Using TENS for Labour Pain Relief

There are several benefits of using TENS for labour pain relief. Firstly, it is a non-invasive pain relief option that is easy to administer. To use the device, a birth partner can help attach the pairs of electrode pads to the lower back and adjust the settings as needed. It also has minimal risks compared to other options.

Secondly, TENS therapy is drug-free. This is ideal for expectant mothers who wish to avoid the adverse effects of pain medication. This natural form of pain relief can also be used with other pain relief methods, such as breathing techniques, for more advanced effects. Moreover, mothers can rent or purchase a device early to familiarise themselves with the settings before their due date.

Lastly, TENS machines are portable. As such, women can bring them to various locations to prepare for the upcoming birth. They may even wear wireless electrode pads underneath their clothing on their way to the hospital. This enables women to use the TENS unit at the starting stages of labour.

Importance of Pain Relief During Labour

Women can experience severe pain during labour. Many describe the experience as arduous and intense since the procedure may last hours. Hence, many search for pain management methods for effective relief in labour. In particular, TENS can provide a sense of relaxation. This is vital to providing a positive experience of the birthing process.

Reducing the pain messages felt by the expectant mother can provide significant help during uterine contractions. This can help them conserve their energy and focus more during the procedure. Moreover, it can help reduce the risks of complications and methods like cesarean section.

A pregnant woman in a clinic near a doctor

Safety Considerations When Using TENS for Labour Pain Relief

Pregnant women must consider safety considerations when using TENS for labour pain relief. Foremost, they must consult their healthcare provider before using TENS to ensure safety. An obstetrician can help determine if the device is safe for the individual to use. This is crucial because TENS therapy is generally not recommended for people with heart disease, seizures, and pacemakers.

Secondly, they must ensure proper pad placement and follow the correct settings. The frequency and intensity levels should not exceed the recommended amount. Generally, the currents should feel relaxing instead of painful. Furthermore, there are also additional risks to using excessively high intensities and applying them to sensitive areas. Hence, users must avoid placing the pads too close to the spinal cord.

Thirdly, women should not use a TENS machine while submerged in water or a birth pool. This is because it may cause electrical shocks that can harm the body and damage the machine. Lastly, avoid using TENS while asleep or doing other activities that require concentration.

Are There Potential Side Effects?

Although TENS is generally safe, there are potential side effects that users should be aware of. One of which is a potential allergic reaction to the materials of the electrode pad or its adhesive. To prevent this, they may opt for hypoallergenic gel pads. They should also check underneath the electrode site when they first try it.

Another potential side effect is skin irritation from overusing the machine. This is typically from using excessively high intensities or prolonged use without breaks. Furthermore, the electric currents from a TENS machine may interfere with the function of devices like pacemakers, leading to adverse events.


Pregnant women may consider using TENS for labour pain relief. It is an effective method of electrotherapy that sends electrical pulses to the nerves to trigger mechanisms for relief. The device has adjustable settings that can provide varying effects. Using high frequencies can trigger the pain gate mechanism. Meanwhile, low frequencies can induce the production of endorphins. This method produces natural pain relief without medication or invasive procedures. Moreover, TENS machines are user-friendly and portable for convenient use.

Nevertheless, pregnant women must follow safety precautions to ensure safety while using TENS. They must consult an obstetrician for guidance regarding their compatibility with TENS therapy. The healthcare professional may also guide them on proper electrode placement and level settings during use. They must follow this to ensure the effectiveness of the therapy session. Those interested may rent or purchase a personal unit for convenience. They may consider the iTENS from iTENS Australia when looking for a wireless TENS unit.

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