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12-month warranty
Same day dispatch
Professionally endorsed

TENS Labor: Mechanisms of Action and Benefits

Husband massaging the feet of his pregnant wife

Many women choose Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) as a pain management method during labour. TENS in labour is a non-invasive and drug-free alternative to drugs and epidurals. It works by activating the complex neuronal network that processes pain. Primarily, it closes the nerve pathways, blocking the transmission of pain signals to the brain. It also prompts the release of natural painkillers called endorphins. These mechanisms of action help decrease painful contractions, contributing to a positive birthing experience.

Managing labour pain is one of the top priorities for many women. Medications, nitrous oxide, and epidural blocks are some of the standard options. However, TENS therapy offers a natural approach to alleviating discomfort during childbirth. By understanding how it works, individuals can incorporate it into their birth plans and find optimal pain relief. In this article, we will delve into the actions of how TENS works, its benefits, and how to use it during labour.

Mechanisms of Action of TENS for Labour

TENS for labour works based on two mechanisms of action. The first one is the pain gate mechanism. According to the Gate Control Theory, non-painful input, like electricity, can close the “neural gates” in the spinal cord. This blocks the pain signals travelling from the site of pain from reaching the brain.

Moreover, the second mechanism is the endorphin release. The electrical pulses generated by the TENS device stimulate the production of endorphins. These natural chemicals bind to opioid receptors, creating an analgesic effect. It inhibits the sensory neurons from sending pain messages to the brain. It results in a reduction in labour pain intensity.

In addition, using a TENS machine during labour helps increase blood circulation. It improves blood flow and reduces inflammation in the targeted area. Furthermore, the electrical pulses serve as a distraction from pain. Users can control the settings to suit the level of pain through the various stages of labour. It includes the pulse rates or frequencies, pulse duration, and amplitude or intensity.

Low and High Frequencies

  • Low-frequency TENS (1-10 Hz): Low-level stimulation produces mild tingling sensations. It is ideal for releasing endorphins, which have lasting therapeutic effects. Use this setting at the beginning of labour, when the contractions are still mild and infrequent.
  • High-frequency TENS (50-120 Hz): This stimulation level produces intense but comfortable sensations. It is best for acute or severe pain like labour and post-operative pain. Moreover, it has a quick onset of analgesia but quickly loses its effect after the stimulation. Pregnant women gradually increase the frequency from low to high as the contractions get stronger, longer, and more frequent.

iTENS large wings and refill gel pads

Benefits of TENS in Labour Pain Management

Using TENS in labour pain offers numerous benefits. Firstly, it is a natural pain relief method. A TENS machine can help ease labour pain without the use of drugs. It is a safe option for women who prefer a drug-free approach or want to avoid the side effects of medicines. Likewise, it can be used as a complementary method or alternative for pain management.

Secondly, it provides control and empowerment. TENS allows women to have control over their pain during labour. They can adjust the intensity to suit their comfort level. This sense of control can also help reduce anxiety and increase maternal satisfaction with the labour experience. Thirdly, TENS has no known adverse side effects. The electrical stimulation does not pose a risk to the mother or the baby.

Furthermore, the TENS machine is easy to use. It is a compact, battery-powered machine ready to use whenever needed. Lastly, TENS is not limited to hospital settings but can also be used at home during the early stages of labour. Many maternity TENS machines have user-friendly features specially designed for women in labour.

Can It Be Used Alongside Other Pain Relief Methods?

TENS machines can be a standalone or adjunctive treatment. It means that people can use the device alone or with other pain management methods during labour. Many women use TENS with other techniques like breathing exercises, relaxation, massage, and medications. It provides an additional layer of pain relief and enhances the effectiveness of different methods.

For women who prefer a drug-free approach, TENS can be a valuable alternative pain relief option to epidurals and opioids. This flexibility allows individuals to tailor their pain management according to their preferences or needs. However, note that each woman may respond differently to TENS therapy.

Pregnant woman experiencing labour contractions

Application of TENS in Labour

The application of TENS in labour is helpful in decreasing pain from contraction. At the onset of labour, have a midwife or birth partner place the electrodes on the lower back. Position one set of pads on each side of the spinal cord below the rib cage and another set above the buttocks. Ensure the skin is clean, dry, and free from infections.

Once the electrodes are in place, turn on the TENS unit and adjust the frequency, duration, and intensity. Start with the lowest setting and gradually increase as the contractions deepen. The aim is to achieve a comfortable level of stimulation that provides pain relief without causing discomfort.

TENS is safe to use with the proper pad placement and settings. Avoid areas such as the abdomen and heart to prevent potential risks. However, it is not recommended for individuals with a cardiac pacemaker, heart conditions, or epilepsy without prior advice. Additionally, while TENS can effectively manage labour pain, it may not completely eliminate the discomfort. It is always a good idea to discuss pain management options with an obstetrician to determine the best approach.

Using TENS Throughout Different Stages of Labour

TENS can be beneficial throughout different stages of labour. Pain relief is more effective when using the device starting at the early stage of labour. It is when the contractions are milder and further apart. Using TENS early on is recommended to establish its effectiveness before the contractions intensify.

As labour progresses, TENS can continue to provide adequate pain relief. The continuous use of TENS can enable the woman to cope better during this stage. Finally, the transition phase is the most intense stage of the birthing process. TENS can help provide relief as the body prepares for the final stage of pushing.


In conclusion, TENS is a safe and effective method for managing labour pain. It provides control, empowerment, and no known adverse side effects. TENS in labour works by sending electrical currents to the body to block pain signals and release endorphins. This can significantly reduce pain sensations and the intensity of contractions. Furthermore, women can control their pain relief efficiently through adjustable settings. They can set the frequencies from low to high stimulation depending on their pain level.

TENS can be used alongside other pain relief methods or as a standalone option. Proper application of TENS machines during labour can maximise their effectiveness, ensure safety and enhance the overall birthing experience. Nevertheless, it is essential to discuss pain management options with a medical professional to determine the best approach for each individual. Overall, TENS is a valuable tool that can help women navigate the challenges of labour and childbirth with greater comfort and confidence.

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