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Professionally endorsed

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TENS Unit What Is It Used For and How Does It Work?

A large wing iTENS electrode pad

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) therapy is a non-invasive form of electrotherapy. A typical question is, what is a TENS unit and what is it for? This is because medical professionals use this device as an alternative pain management method to pain medicines. It uses high and low-frequency stimulation to block pain signals and trigger the production of endorphins. Additionally, the electrical currents have a massage-like effect that increases blood flow to the area.

TENS machines help relieve acute and chronic pain. They complement other treatments to speed up recovery. Moreover, these devices are available for home use. However, people should consult a medical professional before using electrotherapy devices. This is to ensure the safety of the person. In addition, they may advise the therapy session. This article will present what a TENS unit is, how it works, and the safety considerations.

Understanding the TENS Unit and What is it Used for

Some people ask about the TENS unit and what is it used for. This is because many are looking for alternative pain management methods. A TENS machine is an electrotherapy device that uses electrode pads to deliver electrical stimulation. Generally, these units have an intensity range of 0-80 mAmp and a frequency range of 1-150 Hz. Moreover, hospitals and physical therapy clinics often use TENS to supplement treatment.

Generally, there are two types of TENS units. Firstly, the handheld units use lead cables to connect the electrodes and the controller. Doctors and physical therapists often use wired TENS machines. Secondly, the wireless TENS devices use Bluetooth technology to control the electrode pads. This type removes the restrictions of wires and allows users to do simple tasks during the session.

TENS units relieve pain from various chronic and acute conditions. They allow the users to reduce or replace their intake of pain medicines. This is ideal for those allergic to these medicines and those who wish to avoid their adverse effects.

Types of Conditions that Can be Treated

These are some types of conditions in which TENS machines are effective:

  • Fibromyalgia causes widespread musculoskeletal pain, tenderness, and fatigue. It is a chronic condition, and there is currently no cure.
  • Diabetic neuropathy is nerve damage that causes pain and numbness in the legs, hands, and feet.
  • Arthritis is inflammation of one or more joints. It causes pain and swelling and affects people of all ages.
  • Postoperative pain, typically experienced after surgery, radiates throughout the body.
  • Sciatica develops from an injury or pressure to the sciatic nerve. Its symptoms include tingling, weakness, and numbness of the leg.

A person placing a large wing electrode on the lower back

TENS Unit and What Is It – How the Device Works

To understand the TENS unit and what is it for, it is vital to know how it works. A TENS machine is an electrical device that uses high and low-frequency stimulation for pain relief. Using the controller, the user may adjust the settings for optimal pain relief. This may vary from person to person and on their health condition.

High-frequency stimulation (50-120 Hz) induces spinal nerve cells to block pain messages from reaching the brain. This is the mechanism suggested in the Gate Control Theory of Pain. Using this, the individuals have a lessened perception of pain. This setting is ideal for acute pain. For many, the effects are felt within 30 minutes. Moreover, the short-term relief lasts a few minutes after the session.

On the other hand, low-frequency stimulation triggers the production of endogenous opioids. These are painkilling hormones that build up to relieve pain. Moreover, endorphins reduce inflammation and improve moods. This setting is often used for chronic pain. Although the hormones take about 40 minutes, the effects last hours after the session.

How to Operate the Machine

To start, the person should clean and dry the skin. Then, they may attach the adhesive electrodes near or on the pain area. Next, they can turn the machine on. Start on the lowest setting to avoid shock and discomfort. Following that, gradually increase the frequency and intensity until the optimal level is reached.

Typically, sessions last between 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the condition. Once the time has elapsed, switch the machine off. Then, carefully remove the adhesive electrodes and clean them. Finally, store the electrodes in a clean and dry place for future use.

A person holding his pained foot

TENS Unit and What is it – Safety Considerations

Consulting a healthcare provider is ideal before using electrotherapy devices. Individuals may also ask about using a TENS unit and what is it to their doctors or physical therapists. People must exercise caution because some health conditions react negatively to electrical nerve stimulation. This includes those with a history of cancer, seizuresheart disease, and epilepsy.

Additionally, people with electrical and metal implants should abstain from using TENS units. This is because electric currents may cause them to malfunction. Moreover, pregnant women should refrain from using TENS. However, they may consult their healthcare provider regarding TENS for labour pain.

Furthermore, electrode placement is vital in delivering electrical stimulation. It is crucial to avoid sensitive areas like the spine, throat, eyes, top of the head, and mouth. Moreover, do not place pads on irritated, infected, or broken skin. In addition, do not use electrodes while sleeping, driving, or operating heavy machinery. Lastly, TENS electrode pads should not be used while showing or submerged in water.

Potential Side Effects

TENS machines are non-invasive and rarely cause side effects. However, misuse of the device may result in adverse effects. For example, people should not overuse the machine. Although people may use the device up to four times daily, they must take breaks in between. This is to avoid skin irritation.

Moreover, TENS should not contract the muscles. However, using high-frequency stimulation may result in some muscle twitching. Individuals should stop the session and consult a health professional if they experience excessive muscle twitching. Lastly, constant use of high-frequency stimulation may result in the person building tolerance to electrical nerve stimulation.


When people talk about the TENS unit and what is it for, many consider it as an effective method of pain relief. It is a drug-free and non-invasive pain management method complementary to other treatments. TENS units use high and low-frequency stimulation to trigger endorphin production and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. It works on a variety of chronic and acute pain conditions. This includes postoperative pain, labour pain, neck pain, fibromyalgia, and arthritis.

However, people should be careful when using these devices. Overusing and exceeding the duration of the session may lead to skin irritation. Furthermore, some health conditions are negatively affected by electric stimulation. Thus, consulting a healthcare professional is ideal before using electrotherapy devices. In addition, people should use reliable and FDA-cleared devices. An example is the iTENS from iTENS Australia. It is a wireless TENS unit that uses Bluetooth to control wing-shaped electrodes for pain relief.

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