What Are TENS Units & How Do They Work?

What Is a TENS Unit?

Electrotherapy devices that make use of minute amounts of electric current are called TENS machines, and they help with natural pain relief. The word TENS is an abbreviation of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator.

The electronic unit itself is a small device, and through electrodes that are affixed to the skin, it delivers electrical current. This type of electrotherapy targets only the area where pain occurs, rather than affecting the whole body in the way systemic drugs work.

A compact TENS unit is easy and simple to use to provide dependable and fast pain relief at home, at play or at work.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation units come highly recommended and extensively used by pain clinics, sports coaches, physiotherapy and other medical practitioners. Pain should be relieved immediately upon using a TENS unit, and it can be left on for several hours a day or used intermittently throughout the day, and many people realize dramatic relief.

TENS machines do not work by any kind of “magic.” Rather, they send electrical impulses through the electrodes to nerves beneath the skin. The nerves are stimulated in the area where the electrodes are placed. The stimulation eliminates or greatly reduces the sensation of pain the patient feels in most cases. The relief from pain varies with individual patients by the kind of pain and the therapy mode selected. For many patients, the pain relief lasts far beyond the period of time the machine is in use. Some people experience relief or reduction of pain for three or four times the length of time the nerves were stimulated. Other people only realize pain relief while the machine is in use and actually stimulating the nerves.

Our products can alleviate pain such as migraines and other headaches, peripheral nerve injury pain, phantom limb pain, sciatica, sports injuries, aching joints, post operative pain, cancer pain, muscular pain, trigeminal neuralgia, neck injury, whiplash, menstrual pain, rheumatoid and osteo-arthritis pain and many more painful conditions.

TENS—transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation—units can provide pain relief long term when used at home by patients. The intensity of the stimulation can be easily adjusted by the user. The patient can select low frequency or high frequency stimulation. High frequency is known as conventional. A person can tolerate it for hours, but the pain is relieved for a shorter time period. The low frequency stimulation is known as similar to acupuncture. It is tolerable for only 20 to 30 minutes because it is uncomfortable, but it provides a longer period of pain relief. The users of TENS units can also decide where to place the electrodes. They can be placed over the nerve that supplies the area of pain or over the painful area itself. Some people even place the electrodes on the side of the body opposite of the pain.

How does a TENS unit work?

The TENS machine is an electrical device that transmits electrical impulses to the skin’s surface. Electrode pads connect the unit to the skin. The amount of power and size varies with different units. There are small battery powered hand held devices and even wearable models. Size ranges up to desk-top units.

A two-channel TENS unit is offered in a hand-held model by TENS Unit Store. These units have burst, modulation and standard modes. Features include variable pulse-rate of 2-150 and variable pulse-width of 40-260. The various treatment timers are 60 minutes, 30 minutes and constant. The unit operates on a 9-volt battery, which is included in some models, along with the lead wires, a carrying case and a starter supply of electrodes. Treatment timers are also available with some units.

Compact units deliver powerful capabilities and features that home-health professionals and athletic trainers appreciate. For medical facilities and professionals, larger units are available and are still considered portable.

For those who do not want to use tape, gels are available. The gel enhances the electrical impulses from the electrode to the skin. Suppliers of TENS units recommend tensive gel for this purpose.

For neck and back pain problems, we offer wholesale discounts for those who seek drug-free TENS therapy for the management of pain and other rehabilitation as needed. The special discounts apply to individuals as well as medical professionals.

Typically, the cost of a TENS unit ranges from $100 upwards, with many units costing thousands of dollars. “We start our units at an approximate $39.99 for our hand-held unit.”

What makes a TENS machine effective?

As an alternative treatment for chronic and acute pain, two common theories attempt to explain how and why this particular technology works. The first one is the Gateway Theory. This idea is that the stimulations from the electrical impulses blocks the transmission of pain from the nerve endings.

Endorphin-release Theory is the second premise. This one proposes that the electrical impulse currents trigger the release of endorphins that help the nerve systems of the body to combat pain. Regardless of theories, this therapy provides thousands of patients relief or elimination of neck and back pain and pain from injuries and surgery without resorting to prescription drugs.

Maroney explained that for those who suffer from all types of pain, TENS units are an alternative that is affordable and reliable. Regardless of which of the theories you or your health care professionals believe, the technology is increasingly becoming mainstream in the United States. TENS therapy has earned a reputation as an alternative therapy that works.

Can use of a TENS unit become addictive?

No. One problem in the medical field is that health care professionals have told patients to only use the TENS unit for an hour and then stop. This is incorrect information. The TENS unit should be used when someone has pain while trying to sleep, performing exercises such as aerobics, golfing, walking or just while sitting down, etc. If pain returns when the unit is turned off, you can turn it back on and use it 24/7 if needed. Duke Medical Center performed a TENS usage duration study with 5000 patients. That was the longest study ever done and the results showed many patients kept their TENS units on every day for 24 hours for several weeks. After that period, they tapered their usage off and only used the units when their pain increased. No one had become addicted.

When should a TENS unit NOT be used?

Do not use a TENS machine if you have a “demand” pacemaker implant. No one should attempt to treat pain until he or she has been evaluated by a licensed physician to determine the underlying cause of the pain. TENS units should not be used by pregnant women.

Do “Electrical Fields” exist on the body?

Electrical fields exist around every person’s body and they are created by the body. To prove these fields and the electrical resistance that varies constantly on a body, use an “ohm” meter. These are available from electrical supply stores, Radio Shack and other places. In patients with chronic pain, areas of pain can be detected and quantified. A change can also be detected before and after use of the TENS unit in areas of pain.

Are acupuncture and trigger points the same?

The anatomical location of acupuncture points are determined by using a “CUN,” which is a standard measurement specific to a patient’s body size. Trigger points, on the other hand, show the location of definite electrical characteristics. Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably in clinical settings and still produce positive results if electrical stimulation is used on these various points.

Can lotions or gels designed for pain relief be used along with TENS for extra relief?

Yes. It may, in fact, provide a benefit when used in conjunction with a TENS machine. It may actually enhance the absorption of the gel, which may result in better penetration of the gel ingredients and increase pain relief. This is because the TENS unit increases blood flow to the treatment areas. After use, there is a “carryover” effect from the TENS machine and this enhances the effect of the topical gels.

Can electrical stimulation help heal open wounds and help bones that have not reattached?

Yes. A stimulation form called pulsed galvanic stim was used in most of the studies. One study reported successful TENS unit use for decubitus ulcers. Electrical stimulation was found extremely helpful for diabetic patients with open wounds on their legs and feet. Generally, a micro current is used on bones or alternatively, a circumduction coil is used to create an electrical field to use for healing bones.

Many people face a battle every day when living with chronic and acute pain. Most suffering patients with these pain types have no choice offered to them beyond the use of strong prescription drugs to help them in their affliction.

There is hope, however. The acronym TENS, which stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, is an effective alternative that is drug-free and non-addictive. It sends electrical low voltage pulses to the skin’s surface to alleviate pain. The pulses transmit to the nerves underlying the skin in the areas of pain. The individual’s needs determine the duration and strength of the pulses.

Current technology used in TENS development is based on research performed by two physicians, Patrick D. Walls and Ronald Melzack. Their study was entitled: “Pain Mechanism: A New Theory.”

This technology is now broadly used in many areas such as chiropractic care, sports medicine and rehabilitation facilities. The therapy is used by senior living communities and many patients who use it at home.

Chronic Pain and Electrotherapy

Chronic pain can be managed and alleviated by electrotherapy. Normally, chronic pain is the result of some kind of injury or an accident. It is often found in a joint in the knee or hand or in the lower back. Pain itself turns into a disease if it is allowed to last long enough. Arthritis and back pain are the most common types of chronic pain.

Prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications are the most common treatment for chronic pain. However, along with being very expensive, these drugs often have unwanted side effects. TENS therapy by contrast, provides relief for back pain, arthritis, sciatica and various other types of chronic pain without drugs or their side effects. TENS therapy is also very affordable.