Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation – Best TENS Units?


Guide to Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation

Pain is a universal “language”. No matter who you are, where you’re at, what you’ve achieved and how strong you are, you will that pain, regardless of how mild or severe is a major inconvenience, enough to drive even the strongest of us mad.

At its mildest, it can be slightly distracting. At its strongest, pain can knock out even the strongest individual alive. This is partly why the body goes into a state of shock after a very severe injury, resulting in the phenomenon known as fainting. Most of the time, fainting is your body’s way of saying “I’ve had enough”, particularly when the injury is pretty significant.

In the bid to relieve pain, medicine and science has come with many different forms of treatment options. As a result, it is possible to pop a pill and get the relief you need or get zapped to relieve severe to chronic pain. The fact is that humans were not built to endure or live with pain –no matter what certain sects preach- and will do virtually anything to make it stop.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS), is purportedly one of the ways to relieve acute pain and get some relief. It is often presented as a possible source of relief to people suffering from acute or chronic pain. But the real question however is, does it work?

This is important considering that many other painkillers are notorious for their side effects. For instance, morphine, even though effective at providing temporary relief, can disrupt your cognitive capabilities, resulting in flawed judgment, lower response time, mental incoherence, the feeling of being “high”, and making the user a risk to any and everyone around them.

The same applies to other strong pain medications. Most of these have severe side effects that could render you incapacitated. TENS boasts of providing the relief without all the associated side effects of conventional pain medicines.

So, What Exactly is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation?

In simple terms, it is a pain relieving treatment method that employs the use of mild electrical current. Also referred to as zapping Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation has been used by many pain clinics over the past few decades to help ease patients’ pains and discomfort.

As a result, it has over the years acquired a steady following of dedicated customers and users who vow by its efficacy in helping them sleep better, function a bit better and live less uncomfortable lives by relieving their pains.

Part of the reason TENS is such a popular treatment protocol for pain is because of the controversies surrounding it. There are proponents who strongly believe in its efficacy and antagonists who think of it as ineffective.

In fact, some studies have pointed to the fact that it’s selectively effective in its efficacy, and produces only produces individual results. The reasons for this are yet unknown, but scientific studies are still being carried out to determine the cause as well as determine why it’s not scientifically proven, yet produces results for individual users.

Researchers are focusing on the intensity of the stimulation to determine if there can be a one-size-fits-all approach to using it and getting the necessary results. For now, it does appear that users would have to experiment until they find the right voltage that will provide them with the badly needed relief that they sorely crave.

The good news is that with your own TENS machine –these are readily available for purchase for $100 or less and are affordable too-, you can experiment all you want without any risk of harm to yourself and/or loved ones.

This is because the units are designed and fitted with just enough power to relief pain, but not harm anyone. At best, you’ll probably just suffer some mild irritation around the area where you placed the electrodes.

How Does Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Work?

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation works by applying the small battery powered device to the ailing parts of the body. Each unit comes with a device that’s powered by small batteries as well as 2-4 electrodes.

These electrodes are usually placed on the skin around the area that hurts, and the device itself is turned on to deliver the necessary current through the electrodes. These should be positioned about 1-2 inches from each other.

The idea is to create a closed circuit so that when you turn on the machine, it creates a series of electrical impulses targeting the nerves that are localized to that area.

Upon activation, many sufferers routinely feel less pain, resulting in near instant relief for the user. While there’s no definite explanation for why this works, there are scientists who think that its effectiveness is linked to the fact that nerves in that part of the body are stimulated by the mild current, and signals are sent to the brain to quickly release endorphins, which are natural painkillers into the bloodstream, as well as mask the presence of the pain.

Depending on your pain relief needs, the TENS machine can provide bursts of current or steady electrical pulses or currents based on your preferred intensity. Talk to your health care practitioner to help you determine the best settings for your pain, so that you can always use it at home or on the go.

How to Use the TENS Machine at Home

The good thing about TENS machines is that there are many brands out there. Whatever you do, follow the manufacturer’s guide or manual when using it. Because they are meant to relieve pain on the go, most TENS units are designed to be portable.

So, you can carry them around while you’re doing other things. The device is often portable enough to be clipped to your waist or placed in your pockets. Now that you know this, the following are the do’s and don’ts of using the machine –think of them as best practices if you will:

  • Always ensure the machine is turned off before placing the electrodes on your skin.
  • Always dry off before placing the electrodes on your skin, and ensure there’s no injury or damage to the skin.
  • To ensure that the machine is working, hold the electrodes between your fingers and turn on the machine. If it’s working, you’ll feel a tingle.
  • Locate where the pain is, place the pads within 1-2 inches of each other on either side of the area/spot and apply some conducting gel if any. Talk to your caregiver if you have any questions about this.
  • You might need to hold the electrodes in place with tape if you will be moving around while using the machine.
  • After these are in place, turn on the machine and increase the frequency until you feel the tingling sensation. Wait for a while until it feels less intense, then dial up the frequency again until you feel the sensation as strongly as you did the first time. This is usually the perfect frequency for getting the most out of your unit. As a rule, avoid any contractions as that can further worsen your pain.
  • Once done, simply turn it off, remove the electrodes gently, wipe off the conducting gel if you used any, maybe wash and dry, then pack it well for future use.
  • The ideal length of time to use the electrodes before cleaning them out is 45 minutes. However, you can use for as long as necessary. Just make sure you’re comfortable.
  • Avoid usage in very numb areas.
  • As useful as it is, you might want to avoid using it while operating heavy machinery –this includes driving.
  • Please note that while TENS machines can be purchased over the counter, you need to clear its usage with your health practitioner if you have epilepsy, use a pacemaker, are pregnant, and do not know the cause of your pain. This is particularly important for the last one because your undiagnosed pain might actually be a symptom of a serious underlying condition that can be exacerbated by the use of the machine.

What Conditions Would Get Results from the Use of TENS Machines?

While TENS machines are useful in the treatment of pain, this doesn’t apply to all kinds of pains. So, yes, it can be useful in providing relief from pains associated with many conditions, just not all types.

People suffering from back pains, knee pains and neck pains will generally get good results from this treatment. This is even more so if the back pain is caused by degenerative disc disease, general spine and disc conditions, and maybe poorly done or ineffective back surgery.

Diabetics and individuals suffering from chronic regional pain syndrome can also benefit from the relief that it can provide. Then, there’s phantom limb pain –pain experienced by people whose legs or arms have been amputated- severe migraines and pains from cancer treatments.

TENS units have been known to help relieve these pains. If you workout a lot –particularly when you lift heavier weights every day and do a lot of strength training– chances are that you would experience considerable muscular pain. While there are other ways to relieve the pain, you should try using the machine as it can provide the necessary relief you need.

If you suffer from all sorts of inflammatory joint conditions and soft tissue injuries, you’ll find the TENS machine to be helpful at relieving the pains that come with the conditions. It can also be used to provide pain relief during recovery after surgeries, thus ensuring eliminating the risk of drug dependence that arises from consistently taking analgesics to reduce the pains.

It’s also effectively incorporated into other pain management protocols such as acupuncture, biofeedback, relaxation therapy, guided imagery or visualization, physical therapy, chiropractic care, spine manipulation, nerve block protocols, superficial heating and cooling of areas around the pain, and electrotherapy to mention a few.

What Kind of Results Can You Expect from Using TENS?

To be honest, the results might vary depending on the severity of your pain, its cause and location in the body. When it comes to the use of TENS machines, managing expectations is important. That way, you know what to expect and can make an informed decision.

For some people, there’s instant relief from the first time they start using it, while others have to use it for days or even weeks before they’ll start getting any result whatsoever. This is why you should talk to a healthcare expert before buying one, really. Sometimes, the efficacy also depends on skin resistance, your condition and few other factors.

Please note that there’s the possibility of experiencing what is known as breakthrough pain. It simply means that you may get instant relief the first few times, but then experience the pain again even when you have it on, thus necessitating an increase in frequency to match the growing pains.

If this happens to you, speak to your pain management specialist immediately. Most of the time though, it’s just the body adapting to the frequency. Your best bet is to always vary the frequency so your body doesn’t get accustomed to it, thus requiring a higher “dosage”.

The good news however is that many patients and users have reported moderate to excellent results from its usage. So, odds are in your favor as the aforementioned conditions happen in far fewer individuals than those who get great benefits from using the TENS machine.

For most, it starts with pain control, followed by relief, then prolonged minimized pain intensity, and in some cases, complete cure. Bottom line, people who use this tend to reduce their dependence on pain medications – a situation we can all agree is most people want.

The good news is that once it kicks in, you’ll notice an increase in your energy levels as well as strength and activity. You’ll move around more, do the things you were unable to do because of the pain, and enjoy life more. Even if it doesn’t completely cure you, the relief you’ll get will do wonders for your quality of life.


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