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TENS Therapy Pain Relief: How It Works

An elderly woman reading a book while wearing iTENS on her arm.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation or TENS therapy for pain relief works through two key mechanisms. Firstly, it operates based on the Pain Gate Theory. This theory suggests that mild electrical pulses sent through the skin block pain signals from reaching the brain. Secondly, TENS triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. TENS therapy offers non-invasive, drug-free pain relief for various conditions by utilising specific mechanisms. This makes it a preferable choice for individuals seeking relief from discomfort.

Pain management options include oral medications, physical exercise, and TENS therapy. Many people choose analgesics due to their accessibility and affordability. However, medication alone may not always suffice. Long-term use of oral painkillers carries the risk of adverse effects. Alternatively, TENS therapy is a natural and non-toxic approach to pain management that has gained popularity. This article will present how TENS therapy works, including its advantages and safety precautions.

How TENS Therapy for Pain Relief Works

TENS therapy for pain relief works by using electrical impulses to alleviate discomfort in two different ways. Firstly, TENS units with a low frequency of 2-5 Hz stimulate the release of endorphins. These pain-relieving chemicals reduce the perception of pain when stimulated. Low-frequency stimulation effectively manages chronic pain conditions. These include cancer pain, arthritis pain, osteoarthritis pain, and more.

Secondly, TENS therapy involves using high-frequency electrical pulses, typically ranging from 90-130 Hz. This high-frequency stimulation targets the pain gate mechanism in the body. When the nerves receive these electrical impulses, they send signals to the spinal cord. This process temporarily reduces pain signals from transmitting to the brain. People commonly use high-frequency stimulation to manage acute pain, such as labour pain, postoperative pain, or period pain.

Furthermore, some TENS units, such as the iTENS, offer Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) functions in addition to providing pain relief. These functions can be beneficial for individuals who are looking to improve muscle strength and tone. By using electrical impulses, the EMS feature can help stimulate muscle contractions, aiding in muscle rehabilitation and conditioning. This added functionality makes the iTENS a versatile device.

What It Can Treat

Chronic pain:

  • Osteoarthritis: a degenerative joint disease causing stiffness and pain.
  • Rheumatoid arthritis: an autoimmune disease leading to joint inflammation and pain.
  • Sciatica: pain caused by compression or irritation of the sciatic nerve, radiating from the lower back to the legs.
  • Fibromyalgia: a chronic disorder characterised by widespread musculoskeletal pain and fatigue.
  • Ankle tendonitis: inflammation or irritation of the tendons in the ankle.

Acute pain:

  • Post-surgery pain: discomfort experienced after surgical procedures.
  • Fractures and broken bones: pain conditions resulting from physical injury.
  • Labour pain: TENS provide pain relief during childbirth.
  • Muscle sprain or strain: pain caused by overstretching or tearing of muscle fibres.

A person wearing iTENS discreetly on his shin.

Advantages of TENS Therapy for Pain Relief

There are several advantages that TENS therapy for pain relief offers. For instance, it is a non-invasive and drug-free method, making it a safe and natural alternative for managing pain. TENS therapy is generally considered safe and low-risk, with minimal potential side effects. It also has a lower likelihood of developing analgesic tolerance when compared to medications.

Additionally, it provides targeted pain relief. By delivering electrical pulses to the nerves through electrode pads placed on the skin, it interrupts pain messages. Simultaneously, this process triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. This targeted approach allows individuals to focus on specific areas of pain with proper electrode placement.

Furthermore, individuals can customise and adapt TENS devices to their specific needs, as these devices are portable and easily customisable. With different settings for pulse duration and intensity, users can adjust the therapy to achieve the desired level of pain relief. Additionally, the compact size of TENS devices makes them ideal for on-the-go use. This enables individuals to access pain relief at any time and in any location.

Potential Side Effects

TENS therapy can occasionally cause skin irritation. This may cause redness, itching, or a rash at the site of electrode placement. Another potential side effect is muscle spasm. Electrical nerve stimulation can sometimes cause muscles to contract or spasm involuntarily. This can result in discomfort during or after the therapy session.

The side effects linked with TENS therapy are typically mild and temporary. It is important to note that this therapy is generally considered safe, with the benefits often outweigh the potential side effects. Nevertheless, consulting with a healthcare provider before initiating any new treatment is always advisable.

A person peeling off the plastic from the electrode.

Precautions When Undergoing TENS Therapy for Pain Relief

Individuals should take precautions when undergoing TENS therapy for pain relief to ensure safety and maximise treatment effectiveness. Firstly, they should pay close attention to the placement of the electrode pads. Incorrect placement may result in inadequate pain relief or potentially cause discomfort. Therefore, people should carefully follow the guidance provided by their healthcare provider or the user manual.

Secondly, users need to set the correct pulse duration and intensity settings. Using high settings may cause skin irritation or result in an unpleasant sensation. Conversely, too low settings might not provide sufficient pain relief. To optimise the benefits and minimise any discomfort, users should start at a low intensity and gradually increase it.

Lastly, people should limit the duration of each therapy session. Prolonged sessions may result in tolerance, where the body becomes less responsive to the treatment. To avoid this, users need to follow the specified session duration. This precaution ensures that the therapy remains effective over time and helps maintain the desired level of pain relief.

When To Avoid

Certain situations require people to avoid using TENS therapy. For example, individuals with pacemakers. The electrical impulses from TENS units could potentially interfere with the functioning of the pacemaker. Additionally, people with a history of seizures or epilepsy. TENS device could potentially trigger seizures or worsen existing epilepsy symptoms.

Furthermore, it is important to avoid placing the electrodes on broken or irritated skin. Placing the pads on such areas can cause discomfort and potentially lead to infection. Therefore, people should use a TENS machine on intact, healthy skin for optimal results and to prevent any adverse reactions.


TENS therapy for pain relief uses electrical impulses to trigger the body’s natural pain relief mechanisms. It releases endorphins and targets pain gates, providing a safe and non-invasive solution without the need for drugs. Additionally, users can customise the treatment for specific pain areas, enhancing its efficiency. Furthermore, it is portable, allowing people to use it anywhere and giving them control over their pain. TENS therapy is an effective pain management method for individuals to improve their quality of life.

Individuals using TENS therapy must exercise caution to ensure safety. Proper electrode pad placement, accurate pulse duration, and intensity settings are crucial. Starting at a low intensity and following recommended session durations prevents discomfort and maintains the therapy’s efficacy. However, those with pacemakers or a history of seizures should avoid TENS therapy to prevent complications. Avoiding placement on broken skin is also vital to prevent discomfort and infections.

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