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Professionally endorsed

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The TENS Unit: What It Is, Mechanisms of Action, & the Treatable Conditions

A small and large wing iTENS with refill gel pads and necessary information

The TENS unit (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) is an electronic device that utilises electrical currents as a method of pain relief. Accordingly, there are mechanisms of action behind TENS. This may include the pain gate mechanism and the release of endorphins. Additionally, the electrical stimulation may influence blood flow in the treatment area. With such mechanisms, TENS therapy can treat various types of pain conditions. It can help manage both acute pain or chronic pain conditions.

Millions of people around the world struggle with discomfort on a daily basis. It can have a significant impact on daily activities and the overall quality of life. Fortunately, there are ways to manage and cope with it. Common pain management solutions may include physical therapy and medications. However, TENS stimulation for pain relief emerges as a safe and effective treatment solution. The following sections will present the TENS electrical device, its mechanisms of action, and the treatable conditions.

What is the TENS Unit?

The TENS unit is a medical device that sends electrical pulses to the body via electrodes placed on the skin. This electrical stimulation works in various mechanisms to provide relief. It is commonly used by individuals seeking pain relief. They can use it at home or on the go. Additionally, physical therapists and health professionals often recommend TENS to patients suffering from various conditions.

TENS devices are available in both wired and wireless forms. Wired TENS units have electrode pads connected to the central machine via physical wires. On the other hand, wireless TENS units eliminate the need for lead cables. People can control the therapy manually or on a smartphone via Bluetooth. Both types function similarly, with the primary difference being the presence of wires.

Furthermore, using a TENS machine involves several key steps. Foremost, locate the treatment area. Then, clean and dry the skin over it. Next, position the electrode patches, adhering to the proper electrode placement. Finally, turn on the device, adjust the settings, or choose a pre-set program. Nevertheless, it is crucial to consult a medical professional before using the device for safe use.

Advantages Over the Other Treatment Methods

  • Non-invasive: TENS therapy does not require any incisions or injections.
  • Drug-free: It provides an alternative to medications. Hence, it reduces the need for pharmaceutical interventions and their associated side effects.
  • Customisable treatment: TENS devices allow for the adjustment of pulse rate, intensity, and pulse duration.
  • Targeted relief: The electrodes can be placed directly to specific areas of the body. This enables localised relief without affecting surrounding healthy tissue.
  • Portable: The units are lightweight and compact. This offers a convenient and accessible method for ongoing pain management.
  • Complementary therapy: TENS therapy can be used in conjunction with other treatment modalities, such as physical therapy or exercise.

An elderly woman using TENS on her wrist while sitting and reading

Mechanisms of Action Behind the TENS Unit

The TENS unit operates through various mechanisms of action. When the TENS device is applied, the electric currents can stimulate the nerves and trigger endorphin release. These are the natural pain-relieving chemicals of the body. Endorphins act as natural analgesics and help to reduce the perception of discomfort. Additionally, these natural chemicals can induce a sense of well-being.

TENS therapy also works based on the Pain Gate Control Theory. According to this theory, the electrical impulses from TENS activate non-painful sensory nerves. This can close the “gate” that allows pain signals to reach the brain. This process essentially blocks the transmission of pain messages to the brain. As a result, this reduces the perception of discomfort experienced by an individual.

The electrical pulses from TENS also promote vasodilation. This is the widening of blood vessels. Moreover, this increased blood flow helps to reduce inflammation. Furthermore, this activity can promote the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the body tissues. Nevertheless, this contributes to the overall healing process and reduces the sensation of discomfort.

Frequencies and Intensities

TENS devices offer a range of frequencies and intensities. Foremost, TENS units provide a selection of frequencies measured in Hertz (Hz). This represents the number of electrical impulses per second. Lower frequencies (1 to 10 Hz) are often used to target chronic conditions. On the other hand, higher frequencies (50 to 120 Hz) are typically applied for acute conditions.

Meanwhile, TENS units allow for the adjustment of pulse intensities. This determines the strength of the electrical stimulation delivered to the body. Intensity is usually measured in Milliampere (mA). Individuals can adjust the intensity level depending on their comfort level and the desired therapeutic effect.

A man holding his lower back with both hands due to pain

Types of Conditions Treated with the TENS Unit

The TENS unit is utilised to address a variety of conditions. Firstly, TENS therapy is beneficial for acute pain conditions. These are sudden and short-term in nature. It may arise from postoperative pain, primary dysmenorrhea, and injuries. Secondly, TENS is valuable for addressing chronic pain. It is a long-lasting or recurrent condition. This may involve arthritis pain, fibromyalgia, and backaches.

Thirdly, TENS treatment can help manage neuropathic pain. It arises from nerve damage or dysfunction. This may include diabetic neuropathy, sciatica, and nerve entrapment syndromes. Fourthly, TENS therapy is effective in aiding musculoskeletal pain. This involves discomfort in the ones, ligaments, and tendons. It may involve conditions like joint pain, osteoarthritis pain, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Moreover, TENS devices for therapeutic muscular stimulation. This involves the use of specific frequencies and intensities to encourage muscle contractions. Nevertheless, it provides benefits like muscle strengthening, improved circulation, and reduced muscle trotters in cases of immobilisation. Overall, TENS serves as an adaptable form of therapy for a wide array of conditions.

Signs to See a Doctor

If a person experiences new or worsening symptoms, it is essential to seek medical evaluation. This is particularly important if the symptoms persist or become more severe over time. In cases of skin irritation, redness, or allergic reaction in response to the electrodes, a consultation with a health professional is advisable.

Additionally, unusual side effects, such as dizziness, nausea, or headaches, during or after TENS treatment, indicate the need to see a doctor. Seeking medical advice in such cases is essential to rule out any underlying health concerns. This ensures the safe and effective use of TENS devices.


In conclusion, the TENS unit is a valuable tool for managing pain and promoting healing. It is a wired or wireless device that sends electrical currents to the body. The delivery of electrical stimulation is viable due to the electrode pads placed on the skin. Furthermore, there are mechanisms of action behind TENS. This includes blocking pain messages, triggering the release of endorphins, and improving blood flow. Also, the electrical pulses can stream in different frequencies and intensities.

TENS therapy offers several advantages over other treatment solutions. It is non-invasive, drug-free, customisable, and portable. Additionally, it can complement other therapies and provide targeted relief. With such mechanisms and advantages, TENS can treat many conditions. This may include primary dysmenorrhea, backaches, sciatica, and osteoarthritis. However, it is crucial to recognise the signs when to see a doctor. TENS machines are available in the marketplace, including the online retailer iTENS Australia.

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