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12-month warranty
Same day dispatch
Professionally endorsed

Transcutaneous Electrical: What It Is & the Treatable Conditions

A female newscaster reporting about TENS

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is an alternative form of treatment that uses low-voltage electrical currents to alleviate pain. It is a non-invasive electrotherapy technique that uses electrode pads applied to the skin to deliver electric stimulation for relief. It is an effective pain management method for several ailments. TENS works on chronic conditions like fibromyalgia and chronic joint pain. Many also use this for musculoskeletal pain and peripheral nerve disorders.

TENS machines are electrical devices commonly seen in clinics, hospitals, and physical therapy centres. Many people also undergo electric current therapy at home by using home TENS units. However, it is crucial to follow safety precautions to avoid accidents or adverse effects. Hence, individuals should consult their healthcare providers before using TENS machines. This article will present information on TENS, its mechanisms of action, and the types of pain it can treat.

What is a Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation?

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation is a form of electrotherapy that focuses on pain relief. It typically uses electrode pads connected to a power source to send low-voltage electric currents to the body. These electrical impulses travel from the skin and into the nerves to trigger several mechanisms for the relief of pain.

Many patients undergo TENS therapy within medical settings to aid in the treatment of various medical conditions. It works well as an adjunct therapy for active treatments due to the wide range of benefits it can provide the user. It can also help improve recovery outcomes for people under rehabilitation for injuries. This is why it is a popular alternative treatment like acupuncture, massage, and hot and cold therapy.

People can also buy personal TENS units for convenient treatment of pain at home. There is a wide range of TENS products available for purchase on online platforms and physical stores. Individuals may look at product details and customer reviews to determine which device suits them. Some factors to consider are the device type, electrode pad sizes and availability, and battery life.

Brief History of TENS in Pain Management

  • In the 1960s, Melzack and Wall proposed the Gate Control Theory of Pain. This led to the development of the current devices for TENS therapy. C. Norman Shealy, an American neurosurgeon, is typically credited for this.
  • By the 1970s, TENS machines became more widely available in medical settings, such as pain clinics and hospitals, as an alternative method of pain relief.
  • During the 1980s, innovations to improve the portability and cost of the TENS machine made it easier for individuals to buy personal units for home use.
  • By the 1990s, uses for TENS machines became more versatile.
  • Nowadays, TENS use has become prevalent.

A guide showing how to use the iTENS smartphone app

Mechanisms of Action of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation

Essentially, two theories explain the mechanisms of action of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation therapy. Firstly, the Gate Control Theory of Pain suggests that spinal nerves can serve as “gates” to block pain signals. It proposes that using electrical impulses can trigger this effect for a significant reduction in pain intensity.

The other theory is called the Endorphin Release Theory. It puts forward the idea that electrical stimulation for TENS therapy can induce the production of endorphins. These are natural painkillers that bind to opioid receptors to reduce pain in people. These hormones also help improve the quality of life since they can improve moods.

Furthermore, TENS can also improve blood circulation with vasodilation. This helps reduce muscle tension and contributes to healing injuries. To experience these effects, individuals must adjust the settings according to their needs. Most TENS units have adjustable frequency, intensity, and pulse duration levels. Some may also opt to select preset programs for a more convenient relief of pain.

Low and High Frequencies

Frequencies refer to the number of electrical pulses the TENS machine delivers per second. It is measured in the unit Hertz (Hz). It is one of the common settings that TENS machines allow their users to adjust. Using different frequency levels in a treatment session can cause differing effects.

People use low-frequency TENS (2-10 Hz) to treat chronic pain conditions. It triggers endorphin production to provide long-lasting relief. Meanwhile, high frequencies (50-120 Hz) induce the spinal nerve cells to block the pain signals. This is ideal for acute pain conditions and visceral pain because it takes effect quickly.

A person using a long wing iTENS electrode on their thigh for sciatica

Types of Pain Treated by Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation is an effective method for pain control with many conditions. Firstly, many who experience aches from acute conditions, such as postoperative pain, headaches, labour pain, and primary dysmenorrhea, find that using TENS gives them a positive outcome. A common reason is that TENS takes effect quickly and reduces reliance on pain medicines for severely painful conditions.

Secondly, TENS is also effective for chronic pain disorders. Pain is described as chronic if the condition lasts for more than six months. It can be due to an underlying condition or unexplained. Fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, and chronic neck pain are some examples of this.

Thirdly, neuropathic pain is another type of pain that TENS can address. Neuropathy occurs when damage or injury to the nerve occurs. It can lead these nerves to send painful signals and cause numbness and weakness. Some examples of these conditions are stump pain, phantom limb pain, diabetic neuropathy, sciatica, and Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

Is It Safe?

TENS therapy is safe for most people to use as an active treatment for pain. This is because it has minimal risks when used properly. Nevertheless, consulting a healthcare provider before using TENS is recommended to ensure safe use and compatibility with electric nerve stimulation.

Electrode placement is a crucial factor for ensuring safety with TENS use. Individuals must avoid sensitive areas, like the spinal cord, and follow guidelines regarding its use. Moreover, they must observe the proper treatment session duration. Generally, individuals should not use TENS machines for more than an hour as this can cause skin irritation beneath the electrode sites.


Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation is a form of electrotherapy that uses electric current devices to send electric impulses to the skin. The stimulation from these electric pulses travels from the electrode pads to the skin and the nerves. It is a popular alternative method of pain relief because it triggers mechanisms, including endorphin production and the pain gate mechanism. Moreover, the treatment is adjustable, enabling patients to modify the treatment session according to the acute or chronic condition.

TENS therapy effectively uses electrical stimuli to address various ailments. Besides acute and chronic pain, it also alleviates aches from neuropathic disorders. However, it is still recommended to consult a healthcare provider before using TENS. They can assess and diagnose the medical condition and advise on how to use TENS safely. It is particularly crucial for pregnant women who wish to use TENS for labour pain and those with serious medical conditions.

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