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Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS: Overview

A news report about TENS, a faster pain relief method

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS is a drug-free method of pain relief. It uses a portable device to send low-voltage electrical currents to the affected area of the body. This approach stimulates the sensory nerves to reduce pain and promote healing. Moreover, TENS can be used for various conditions, including chronic pain, acute pain, muscle tension, and even labour pain. Nevertheless, it requires proper usage to ensure the effectiveness of the therapy.

Aside from being drug-free, TENS therapy is also a non-invasive pain management method. It provides targeted relief through electrode placement on the pain site. Thus, this option is suitable for individuals seeking a natural alternative to medication. Nevertheless, it is advisable to understand the functions, benefits, and potential risks before using the device. This article will provide an overview of TENS therapy, including how it works and how to administer the treatment for pain.

Brief History of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS

The origin of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS dates back to when ancient Egyptians used electric fish to alleviate pain. They noted that the electrical charges can alleviate headaches and gout pain. However, it was not until the 1960s that modern TENS therapy began to take shape. The initial development can be attributed to the discovery of the Gate Control Theory of Pain.

Researchers began experimenting with different electrical stimulation techniques to control pain. The success of these early studies led to the development of TENS as a viable pain management option. In the 1970s, Dr. Norman Shealy introduced the first modern, wearable TENS unit. It is a more portable device in comparison to the bulky equipment in pain clinics.

The first TENS machines were originally intended for testing the tolerance of patients with chronic pain. Over the years, it has been widely used in various clinical settings, including pain management, physical therapy, and rehabilitation. Additionally, the technology behind TENS machines has advanced with the introduction of wireless devices, allowing for more convenient relief.

Treatable Conditions

  • Musculoskeletal pain: Pain in muscles, bones, joints, and tendons. Common causes are acute injury and conditions like arthritis, fibromyalgia, and scoliosis.
  • Neuropathic pain: Nerve-related conditions that affect the nervous system. It often results in recurring pain due to the abnormalities of sending signals to the brain. Examples are sciatica and diabetic neuropathy.
  • Period pain: Abdominal cramps during menstrual period. It can range from a dull ache to debilitating pain.
  • Headaches: These include tension headaches and chronic migraines.
  • Muscle strain: Injuries to the muscles and tendons due to tears or overstretching.
  • Postoperative pain: Pain and discomfort at the site of surgery.

A woman wearing a wireless TENS machine on the elbow

How a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS Works

A TENS machine is a battery-operated device with adjustable settings and sets of electrodes. It works by sending electric currents to the body to stimulate the peripheral nerves. These currents are adjustable to suit different levels or types of pain. Therefore, it allows individuals to set the stimulation according to their specific needs or comfort level.

High-frequency TENS stimulates the nerve fibres in the spinal cord to disrupt pain signals going to the brain. In contrast, low-frequency TENS induce the release of endorphins, hormones known as natural painkillers. These mechanisms minimise the amount of pain messages received by the brain. As a result, the person may experience a significant reduction in pain intensity.

Proper electrode placement is vital to ensure optimal results. It involves positioning the electrode pads on either side of the pain or along specific nerve pathways. This would enable the currents to reach the affected nerves. Overall, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS can provide short-term pain relief without the need for pain medications.

The Main Theories at Work

There are two main theories on which TENS therapy relies. The first one is the Gate Control Theory of Pain. This theory suggests that certain nerve bundles in the spinal cord act as a pain gate mechanism. One of the factors that can control this gate is electrical stimulation.

The second theory is the Endogenous Opioid Release. It suggests that TENS can trigger the production of endorphins and other hormones. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that bind to the opioid receptors, inhibiting them from sending pain messages. Additionally, TENS can stimulate the motor nerves, promoting blood circulation.

A person removing a wireless TENS electrode on the arms

How to Conduct a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS Therapy

The process of conducting Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS therapy is relatively simple. Key steps to remember are electrode placement, settings adjustment, and monitoring the treatment. To begin, attach the electrode patches near the pain area. Once in place, turn on the TENS unit and adjust the settings accordingly. This would depend on the specific condition.

Moreover, start with a low intensity and gradually increase to a comfortable level. Users should ensure that the tingling sensations from the device are strong but painless. If it causes discomfort, reduce the intensity until the sensations are tolerable. Furthermore, set the treatment duration for 30 to 45 minutes. After the session, turn the device off and remove the pad.

During use, it is essential to monitor the feedback of the body to the stimulation. Users may keep adjusting the electrical signals until they feel the most effective relief. In addition, adhering to safety guidelines can help prevent any potential risks. Individuals may consult a healthcare professional for guidance, especially those with serious medical conditions.

Are There Potential Side Effects?

TENS machines are generally safe to use. However, there are a few potential side effects to be aware of. They are typically mild and temporary. One common side effect is skin irritation or redness at the site of electrode placement. Others may experience dizziness when using the device for a prolonged period of time.

To minimise these risks, it is important to wash the skin before attaching the electrodes. Ensure the skin is completely dry and free from oil, lotion, sweat, and dirt. Some may use hypoallergenic pads to minimise allergic reactions. Additionally, do not put the pads on infected or broken skin.


Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation TENS is a non-invasive and drug-free method of pain relief. It works by overriding sensory nerves to block pain signals and release endorphins. It also promotes blood circulation and faster healing of injuries. These processes can reduce pain without medications or invasive procedures. The device has adjustable settings to tailor to different needs and preferences. With proper usage, TENS can help manage various acute and chronic pain conditions, such as arthritis, sciatica, and fibromyalgia.

There are a few factors to remember when using the TENS machine. It includes proper pad placement and adjustment of settings. Following the safety guidelines is also crucial to prevent unwanted risks or side effects. Lastly, it is advisable to consult a doctor or physical therapist before starting TENS therapy. This is because TENS may not be suitable for individuals with heart conditions, epilepsy, implanted devices, and pregnant women. TENS machines are available in pharmacies or online, like iTENS Australia.

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