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Professionally endorsed

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TENS Unit Upper Back: How It Helps to Reduce the Perception of Pain?

Man holding his upper back

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation or TENS unit for the upper back is a device that helps reduce the perception of pain. It works through pain gating, which means that the electrical pulses block the pain signals from reaching the brain. Additionally, TENS units can stimulate the release of endorphins. This further contributes to reducing the perception of pain in the upper back. However, it is advisable to consult a doctor before using TENS therapy.

Upper back pain can stem from various sources, including muscle strain, poor posture, herniated discs, osteoarthritis, and even stress. Treatment options may include oral medications, cold packs, and TENS therapy. Most people take analgesics because it is accessible and affordable. But sometimes, medications may not be enough. This article will present what a TENS device for the upper back is, including how it works and the correct usage.

What is a TENS Unit for the Upper Back?

A TENS unit for the upper back is a battery-operated device that provides optimal pain relief by using electrical stimulation. It consists of electrode pads that people place on their skin near the area of pain. These pads deliver a low-voltage electrical current to the nerves, which can help alleviate both chronic and acute pain conditions.

Generally, there are two types of TENS machines: wired and wireless. Wired units use lead cables to connect the controller and power source to the pads. These are often seen in hospitals and physical therapy clinics. Meanwhile, wireless units utilise Bluetooth technology to control the electrodes. Many use these at home because they are portable and easy to use at any time.

Some models include several preset programs, such as massage modes or specific treatments for back pain, neck pain, shoulder pain, and abdominal cramps. Moreover, the electrode pads can be self-adhesive or require a conductive gel. In addition, the pads come in different sizes and shapes, which are interchangeable to fit different body areas.

Related Conditions a TENS Can Treat

  • Muscle strains and sprains: this refers to injuries or overstretching of the muscles or tendons. These injuries can result in pain, swelling, and decreased range of motion.
  • Arthritis: this is a medical condition involving inflammation of the joints, causing pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility.
  • Fibromyalgia: it is a chronic pain condition that causes widespread pain, tiredness, and sensitive points in different parts of the body.
  • Posture-related pain: this refers to discomfort and muscle tension in the upper back caused by poor posture.
  • Nerve-related pain: it encompasses conditions such as pinched nerves or nerve damage, resulting in sharp, shooting pain in various parts of the body.

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How a TENS Unit for the Upper Back Helps Alleviate Pain

A TENS unit for the upper back helps alleviate pain by activating the pain gate controllers in the spinal cord. This process is based on the Gate Control Theory of Pain. This theory suggests that the electrical stimulation from the TENS unit closes the “gate” to prevent the brain from receiving pain signals.

Another way a TENS device helps alleviate pain in the upper back is by triggering the release of endorphins. Endorphins are the natural painkillers of the body. These chemicals can help reduce the sensation of pain in the upper back and provide relief.

Moreover, the TENS unit can help boost circulation. The constant stream of electrical pulses stimulates the motor nerves and muscles. This increases blood flow and oxygen in the area, which can help reduce inflammation and cramping sensations. Experimenting with different settings can help find the most effective upper back relief. However, it is important to seek medical advice from a healthcare provider before using a TENS unit.

Understanding Low and High Frequencies

High-frequency stimulation activates spinal nerve cells to block pain signals from reaching the brain. This stronger stimulation typically operates at a frequency ranging from 50 to 150 Hz. It is effective for acute or intense pain because it produces fast-acting results. However, the relief of pain may only last for a few minutes after the session.

On the other hand, low-frequency stimulation triggers endorphin release. Operating at a range of 2 to 10 Hz, this type of stimulation is more appropriate for chronic pain relief because its effects can last for hours after the session. However, it does take longer to feel its effects.

Workflow on how to operate the iTENS app

Usage Guideline When Using a TENS Unit for the Upper Back

Using a TENS unit for the upper back is a simple process. To ensure safe use, the individual may read the instruction manual from the device manufacturer. In addition, they may consult their healthcare provider for advice on how to use the device for their condition.

Before starting, clean the area with soap and water. Then, apply the electrode pads on dry skin. Once the pads are secure, they may turn the machine on. It is best to start on low settings to avoid sudden electric shocks or discomfort. Then, they can gradually increase the settings or select a preset mode to alleviate their aches.

Generally, TENS sessions last around 20-30 minutes. This depends on the settings used and the overall health condition. They may set a session timer to ensure the user does not exceed the limit. Once the time has elapsed, they can turn the machine off. Afterwards,  remove the adhesive electrodes and store them for future use.

Are There Risks of Side Effects?

One of the possible effects of TENS therapy is skin irritation. Some individuals may be sensitive or allergic to the adhesive of the electrodes. This can cause the skin to become red or itchy. To prevent skin irritation, people may opt for hypoallergenic pads. Additionally, they must not place the electrodes on broken skin.

Another potential side effect is muscle twitching. It is an involuntary contraction of muscles. It can occur when the electrical impulses from the TENS machine stimulate the sensory nerves excessively. Therefore, users have to avoid turning the intensity too high and always start with the lowest setting.


A TENS unit for the upper back offers effective pain relief by using electrical stimulation. By closing the “pain gate” in the spinal cord or promoting the release of endorphins, it helps alleviate discomfort. Additionally, the device enhances circulation, reducing inflammation and cramping. Its user-friendly features, such as preset programs and wireless options, make it a convenient choice for personal use. However, consulting a healthcare provider before using a TENS unit is essential to ensure safe and tailored pain management.

Using a TENS unit for upper back pain is a straightforward process. Following guidelines, people can apply electrode pads on clean, dry skin, starting with low settings and gradually increasing for comfort. Sessions typically last 20-30 minutes, with users monitoring time to avoid exceeding limits. While skin irritation and muscle twitching are potential side effects, selecting hypoallergenic pads and cautious electrode placement can mitigate risks.

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