Muscle and joint pain can be debilitating at times. It can interfere with your sleep, affect what sort of job you can hold, and even negatively affect your relationships with others. Not understanding the cause of the pain or knowing how to treat it can be very stressful and overwhelming. Although each person will require different forms of treatment, there is a particular device that has helped many alleviate their pain. Many people have found relief from muscle, joint, and other types of pain through TENS.
What is TENS?
TENS is the acronym for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. A TENS unit is a battery-powered device that transmits signals to a person’s skin via electrodes. It is essentially a pain treatment that uses low voltage electricity to scramble the pain signals in your body. The device itself can be attached to a belt or placed in a pocket, and then the electrodes are attached to the skin via adhesive pads.
The electrodes carry an electric current from the device to your skin, which reduces the ability of the nervous system to transmit pain signals to the brain. These same electrical currents help to stimulate the release of endorphins – the body’s natural pain relievers.
What Can TENS be Used for?
TENS therapy is often used to treat both chronic and acute pain. The units can be used to treat pain from a variety of different sources, including:
- labor pain
- joint pain
- neck pain
- back pain
- pain following an operation
- period pain
- multiple sclerosis
- injury to the spinal cord
- sports injuries
How is a TENS Unit Used?
A TENS unit can be purchased both online and at many local pharmacies, but you should first consult a physical therapist before trying the machine on your own. The physical therapist can determine the proper settings for your particular pain.
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There are three different adjustments you can make to a TENS device: the intensity, frequency, and duration.
- Intensity refers to the amount of electricity that flows through the electrodes.
- Frequency refers to the number of electrical pulses per second. High-frequency pulses, ranging from 80-120 cycles per second, are often used to ease acute pain. Low-frequency pulses, ranging from 1-20 cycles per second, are more often used to manage chronic pain.
- Duration is the length of each electrical pulse.1
Once a doctor has helped you find the proper settings for your particular condition, you can easily use the unit on your own.
Properly Positioning and Using the TENS Unit
TENS machines are very small and weigh close to nothing. They can go on a belt, in a pocket, or in the hand. The unit can work throughout the day for as long as you need, so you can work or run errands while using it. However, you should not use it while you are driving, operating machinery, or showering.
Positioning the TENS unit is a fairly simple procedure. The machine should always be switched off before you begin. Place the adhesive pads on either side of the painful area, approximately 1 inch apart.
You should never place the pads on the front or sides of your neck, your mouth, eyes, head, areas that are numb, varicose veins, or broken skin. Placing the electrodes on the front of the neck can lower blood pressure and cause spasms. Placing the pads on the eyes can increase pressure within the eye and may result in injury.
When the pads are positioned correctly, you should turn on the TENS unit and adjust it to the correct setting. When the machine is turned on, you should feel a slight tingling sensation where the pads are placed. Properly set, the tingling sensation should be strong yet comfortable. If it becomes painful or in any way uncomfortable, reduce the intensity.2
Benefits of Using a TENS Unit
One of the main benefits of TENS is the fact that it is a noninvasive pain-relieving method. The units are small, portable, discreet, and provide immediate pain relief. Many people rely on prescription or over-the-counter medications to alleviate pain, often needing to up their dosage to continue to get the same relief. Oftentimes these medications create negative side effects that cause even more problems. Some people have found TENS effective enough to reduce the number of pain medications need to take each day.
Are There Any Side Effects?
Most people who use a TENS unit never experience any side effects. The most common complaint is that the electrical current may be uncomfortable. In most cases, reducing the intensity can solve this problem. Your skin may experience minor redness or itchiness when removing the electrodes. This should pass quickly. If it worsens, contact your doctor. Some people may also find that they are allergic to the adhesive pads. Hypoallergenic pads can work as a replacement.
While TENS units are safe for most people to use, pregnant women cannot use them, as well as people suffering from epilepsy, people with heart problems or those who have a pacemaker.
How Effective is This Treatment?
While TENS is an effective treatment and provides many people relief from their pain, it is only temporary. TENS does not treat the underlying cause of the pain but merely alleviates the discomfort. This can be very helpful when people are trying to reduce the number of pain medications they are on. While the machine is in use, it can provide immediate relief. Scientists need to research more to determine exactly how effective TENS is for both acute and chronic pain.
Those who use the machine regularly may develop a tolerance to the same frequency and intensity and may find that they need to continue to increase these. Even so, it is found to be effective in most cases – especially if the pads are placed on acupuncture points. Because TENS has no negative side effects and is a safe treatment option for most people, it is worth trying alongside other natural pain relievers.
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