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Transdermal Electrical Stimulation: What Is It And How Does It Work?

A woman with iTENS on her arm is placing iTENS to another person's back.

Transdermal electrical stimulation, also known as Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS), is a technique used to alleviate pain. It works by applying low-voltage electrical currents to specific areas of the body, which stimulates the release of endorphins. Additionally, TENS activates the body’s pain mechanism, where electric stimulation causes the central nervous system to override the pain signals. Moreover, TENS helps boost blood circulation, providing relief to sore muscles and promoting healing.

Pain is a subjective and personal experience that varies from person to person. Treating different conditions can be difficult because each individual perceives pain in their own way. For instance, some people may have a higher tolerance for pain than others. Therefore, it is important to find the right type of treatment that works for each person. This article will present what TENS is, including how it works and safety guidelines.

What Does Transdermal Electrical Stimulation Mean?

Transdermal electrical stimulation or TENS is a therapeutic technique. It involves the use of low-voltage electric currents to relieve pain. In simpler terms, TENS is a method of applying electrical impulses to the skin to help alleviate discomfort.

People use TENS to ease different types of pain. These include postoperative pain, musculoskeletal pain, phantom pain, neuropathic pain, period painarthritis painfacial pain, cancer pain, and more. TENS machines have small pads put on the skin near the sore spot. When turned on, they send tiny electrical signals that make a tingling feeling. Additionally, TENS is a safe and helpful choice for treating pain that anyone can use at home or on the go.

The level of pain relief experienced from using a TENS machine will depend on the type and intensity of the pain. Acute pain, which occurs in bursts, tends to have longer periods of relief. A single session with the TENS machine can provide relief for 15 to 30 minutes. If longer treatment periods are needed, people may use the TENS machine multiple times a day.

Types Of Stimulation Devices

  • TENS devices: these portable devices generate low-voltage electrical currents to stimulate the nerves to relieve various pain. These include labour painjoint pain, pelvic pain, and more.
  • Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) devices: these devices use strong electrical currents to stimulate muscle contractions.
  • Interferential Current Devices (IFC): this type of stimulation device uses two high-frequency currents that intersect and produce a low-frequency current within the body.
  • High Voltage Galvanic Stimulation (HVGS) Devices: these electronic devices deliver a high-intensity direct current to the body.
  • Microcurrent stimulation devices: these electrical devices emit extremely low-level electrical currents that closely resemble the body’s own natural electrical currents.


Using different TENS pad sizes for different body areas

How Does Transdermal Electrical Stimulation Work

Transdermal electrical stimulation or TENS treats acute and chronic pain by aiming at the source of pain signals. This method follows the Pain Gate Theory, which states that an electrical current can stop pain messages from reaching the brain. It does this by stimulating the sensory nerves, which then close the “pain gate,” blocking pain messages.

In addition, TENS also works by prompting the body to release natural painkillers called endorphins. When electrical currents activate specific nerve fibres, they trigger the release of endorphins. These chemicals act as pain relievers by binding to receptors in the brain and spinal cord. As a result, this helps reduce pain levels by slowing down the transmission of pain messages

Moreover, TENS can enhance blood flow to the treated area. It does this by increasing blood circulation and delivering more oxygen and necessary nutrients to the tissues. This helps with healing and reduction in pain. Also, this improved circulation helps to remove waste products from the area, further alleviating discomfort. Furthermore, people can change the pulse frequencies and pulse duration for different types of pain in adults.


TENS offers several benefits for the treatment of chronic and acute pain. Firstly, it is a non-invasive and drug-free method of pain relief. Unlike other treatments, TENS uses electrical currents to target pain signals and provide relief. This makes it a safer and more natural alternative for individuals seeking pain control.

Secondly, portability. Individuals can use TENS devices at home or on-the-go, without the need for frequent visits to a pain clinic. This portability allows for more flexible and personalised treatment options, making TENS a convenient choice for the treatment of pain. Moreover, TENS is well-tolerated by most people, with minimal risk of side effects.


A woman with iTENS on her arm is placing iTENS to another person's back.

Safety Guidelines For Undergoing Transdermal Electrical Stimulation

Before undergoing transdermal electrical stimulation, people should consult a healthcare professional and carefully follow the user manual. The professional will guide them on how to properly use the device properly, ensuring its effectiveness and safety. Additionally, the manual contains information about the parts of the machine, how to select the correct settings, and more.

Furthermore, individuals should get their skin ready for TENS. They should clean the spot where they will apply it with gentle soap and water to remove dirt, oils, or lotions. After cleaning, make sure the area is completely dry with a clean towel. Doing this makes the electrode stick better and allows the electrical pulses to work better.

Once the skin is clean and dry, users should begin with a low-intensity setting on the device. They should slowly raise the intensity as they can handle it. Users can also adjust the electrical pulse rate based on their preference. Moreover, they need to follow the proper electrode placement to aim at the painful areas. Overall, these safety guidelines are essential to ensure the effective use of this pain relief method.

When To Avoid

While TENS can be an effective option for managing various types of pain, there are certain situations in which it may not be suitable. Individuals with pacemakers or other implanted electronic devices should avoid TENS. The electrical currents can interfere with the functioning of these devices, potentially leading to serious complications.

In addition, individuals with certain skin conditions should also exercise caution. Skin conditions such as open wounds, cuts, or infections can be aggravated by the electrical current, causing further irritation. It is crucial for healthcare professionals to carefully evaluate each patient’s physical condition to determine the appropriateness of this treatment.


Transdermal electrical stimulation, or TENS, is a valuable therapeutic technique for relieving pain. It works by using low-voltage electric currents to target pain signals and block them from reaching the brain. TENS also stimulates the release of natural painkillers called endorphins, which help reduce pain levels. Additionally, TENS can improve blood flow to the treated area, aiding in healing and reducing discomfort. However, individuals should follow safety guidelines when using TENS to ensure its effectiveness.

TENS offers numerous benefits for the treatment of chronic and acute pain. It is a non-invasive and drug-free method, providing safe and natural relief. Additionally, the portability of TENS devices allows for flexible and personalised treatment options, making it a convenient choice. Moreover, TENS is generally well-tolerated with minimal risk of side effects. However, individuals with pacemakers or certain skin conditions should avoid TENS to prevent complications and further irritation.

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