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TENS machine

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 4 minutes read

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine (also known as a TENS machine) is a device used to provide pain relief. Typically, TENS machines come as small, portable, and battery-operated boxes with wires connected to electrodes that you attach to your skin with sticky pads. However, some newer versions are wireless. TENS machines deliver low voltage electrical impulses through your skin, which is felt as a tingling sensation.

For you to feel pain, electrical signals must be sent to your brain. The electrical impulses generated by a TENS machine are thought to help relieve pain by interfering with these pain signals and stopping them from reaching your brain. They may also increase your body’s production of hormones called endorphins which act as natural pain relief.

What are TENS machines used for?

Some people like to use a TENS machine as an alternative to painkillers, although they can be used alongside them, too. There are lots of conditions whereby people may use a TENS machine, including:

Typically, people use a TENS machine several times a day in 15-20 minute sessions. A TENS machine can also be used to provide pain relief during the early stages of labor.

How do TENS machines work?

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) machines operate on the principle of modulating pain perception by leveraging the body's natural mechanisms. When the device is activated, it delivers controlled electrical impulses through electrode pads strategically placed on the skin. One key aspect of TENS therapy is its potential to stimulate the release of endorphins, which are endogenous neuropeptides that act as natural painkillers. The electrical pulses generated by the TENS machine trigger sensory nerve fibers, prompting the release of endorphins from the brain and spinal cord. Endorphins bind to specific receptors in the nervous system, creating an analgesic effect that can help alleviate pain.

The modulatory impact of TENS on pain perception extends beyond endorphin release. The electrical impulses generated by the device also interact with the nervous system to potentially disrupt or inhibit pain signals travelling to the brain. This interference occurs at multiple levels, involving both the peripheral nerves near the site of electrode placement and the central nervous system. By modifying the transmission of these pain signals, TENS aims to provide relief from various types of pain, including chronic conditions, acute injuries, or postoperative discomfort.

The flexibility of TENS therapy allows individuals to personalize their pain management approach while benefiting from the non-invasive and portable nature of the device.

While the exact mechanism of TENS are still a subject of ongoing research, the overall goal is to offer an alternative or complementary method for pain relief, particularly for those seeking non-pharmacological options. As with any medical intervention, consulting with healthcare professionals is essential to ensure appropriate use, considering individual health conditions and the specific nature of the pain being addressed.

Do transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine's work?

There is no conclusive evidence to say for sure that TENS machines work. More clinical trials are needed to prove their effectiveness. That said, anecdotal reporting suggests that they do benefit some patients. Even if it is a placebo effect, if it works for you then it is worth a go!

How to position the pads

Before positioning the pads, you should make sure the machine is switched off. Then you should stick the pads on either side of the painful area at least one inch apart. Ensure the skin you apply the pads to is clean and dry and not broken, irritated, or infected. Do not place the pads over your eyes, mouth, temples, front or sides of your neck, heart, numb areas, or varicose veins. You will need to buy new pads once they lose their stickiness (usually every few months).

Should anyone avoid using them?

You should speak with your doctor before using a TENS machine if you have a pacemaker or any other electrical or metal device implanted in your body. You should also speak with your doctor before using a TENS machine if you are pregnant or have epilepsy, heart disease, cancer, or pain that is undiagnosed. Children should only use a TENS machine if it has been recommended by their doctor, and they should be supervised by an adult when using it.

Are there any side effects?

Most people that use a TENS machine do not experience any side effects. However, some people may be allergic to the pads and develop a rash. In this case, there are special allergy-sensitive pads available to buy.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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