Using TENS to Relieve Pain: What is TENS and How Does it Work?

TENS is a contemporary, non-pharmaceutical pain relief treatment. The word “TENS” is actually an acronym for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator.

Its full name can be a little bit misleading, since many people associate “electrical” with shock and shock therapy. In reality, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator treatment, which is delivered through the use of a TENS unit, delivers a mild pulsing sensation, not shock.

TENS units are devices which deliver low levels of electrical currents topically (through the skin.)  The device creates a series of pulsing sensations.  The frequency and intensity of the pulses are controlled through knobs and/or buttons.  The electrical pulses are delivered from the device to the skin through the use of electrodes.  These electrodes are connected by wire to the TENS unit and applied to the skin, directly over the place where the pain relief is needed.

Depending on the nature of the injury or illness, doctors and therapists may start patients on a very low frequency and intensity of pulses.  They may gradually increase that level if the patient is comfortable and the condition warrants it.  Some units can actually be controlled by the patient, who can adjust the level him/herself to a level that is comfortable and provides the most benefit.

The length of the treatment itself often depends on the nature of the injury/illness.  A typical course of treatment for acute pain (i.e. post-op pain or accident injury) lasts for 6-8 weeks, with two to three sessions per week.  Individual sessions may last for ten to twenty minutes, and may be adjusted depending on the effectiveness of the treatment and the progress of healing.  TENS pain relief treatment for chronic pain (i.e. MS, arthritis) may be delivered on an ongoing and as-needed basis.

This therapy may be prescribed to alleviate pain from a range of illnesses or injuries.  TENS therapy may be prescribed for treatment of both chronic (pain that is recurrent, such as pain from osteoarthritis) and acute pain (pain that is the result of an injury that hasn’t healed completely.) It has been used to treat tissue and muscle damage (i.e. from a car accident or sports injury), pain resulting from surgery, strains (i.e. neck, back), tendonitis, arthritis and more.

There is conflicting information on the effectiveness of TENS pain relief treatment.  Research has only been conducted on a few specific types of pain, and in most of these cases has been shown to be moderately to highly effective.  Effectiveness usually depends upon the nature of the illness/injury, and the overall health and fitness of the individual patient.

TENS therapy has become a fairly routine form of treatment for pain and rehabilitation after an accident or operation.  A majority of patients who receive TENS therapy report at least a small level of pain relief.  Many find the treatment very effective, and most physical therapists agree that it may significantly shorten the duration of healing.  It is also an excellent alternative to drug treatments, especially when used on a regular basis during recovery.

TENS units are found in two basic types.  They may be found in the form of a home device, which patients can use in their own homes as needed (or prescribed) rather than requiring a doctor’s or therapist’s visit.  These units typically deliver lower levels of electricity and pre-programmed programs of treatment.

The other type of TENS unit is more complex.  It usually has the potential to deliver higher electricity levels than home unitsPsychology Articles, and therefore must be administered under the supervision of a doctor or therapist.


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