TENS Machines: The benefits for pain relief

By the end of this article, you will have a solid understanding of the benefits of a TENS machine, when you may need one, the different types and how to choose the right one for you.

What is a TENS Machine?

TENS, or Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation machine, is a device that offers pain relief through the use of a mild electrical current. Small, sticky pads (known as electrodes) are attached to the site of pain. When the machine is turned on, a burst of tiny electrical impulses is sent through your body. For most people, the sensation is similar to a tingling feeling. This sensation is designed to alter the input of painful stimulus, thereby reducing your pain.

How does it work?

It works through a mechanism of signal distraction, trying to get your nervous system to focus on the impulses from the TENS machine, rather than the painful stimulus you may be suffering.

How to use a TENS machine

This is a general guide only. Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully when using your own device.

Avoid placing the electrodes on open wounds, your head, chest or any other part of the body that is not appropriate. If you are unsure, then seek the advice of your doctor or physiotherapist before beginning treatment.

Step 1. Ensure the device is switched off, then place the pads over the affected area. They should be at least 3cm apart.

Step 2. Turn the device on and slowly turn it up until you feel a strong but comfortable sensation.

Step 3: Leave it on for the preferred duration - you may need to increase the intensity during the session as you get used to the original setting.

You may use the device several times a week or even a couple of times a day, depending on the severity of pain.

Benefits of a TENS machine

TENS is most sought after and beneficial in pain relief. It is a non-invasive method of pain reduction that, when effective, can reduce your intake of pain medication. This is especially true for chronic pain sufferers who may be reliant on pain medication indefinitely.

The TENS machine is also quite handy as it is affordable, small and portable and very user friendly. This means most people can access them and take advantage of potential pain relief. Some devices are even small enough that they can be used in the office discretely, without your colleagues even knowing.

TENS machines can help relieve pain in these Top 5 Injuries.

  1. Back pain

  2. Neck pain

  3. Knee pain

  4. Headaches

  5. Tennis elbow

When do you need a TENS machine?

There are several situations where a TENS machine can be useful:

TENS machines can be useful when pain increases acutely; however, they are most widely used in the management of chronic pain. They can provide temporary relief of symptoms, potentially reducing the need for medication and other potentially more dangerous treatment options.

A list of sports where a TENS machine can be useful for pain relief:

Different types of TENS machines

When searching for a TENS machine, you will come across a few variations and types. The various devices do have different functions, so you will want to choose a machine that fits your purpose.

Conventional TENS

Treatment time frame: 30 minutes

Desired treatment sensation: strong but comfortable tingling

Goals for treatment: provide relief of pain at the site of the electrodes

Acupuncture-like TENS

Treatment time frame: 15 minutes

Desired treatment sensation: strong but comfortable muscle contractions/twitches

Goals for treatment: provide relief of pain away from the site of the electrodes (referred pain)

E.g. electrodes on the spine, targetting the nerves down the leg.

Brief, intense TENS

Treatment time frame: 5 minutes

Desired treatment sensation: powerful sensation - eliciting numbness/paresthesia at the site of the electrodes

Goals for treatment: create a nerve block temporarily to reduce nervous system activation

Some TENS machines will provide one or the other, whilst some devices will have the capabilities of providing all types of TENS treatment.

How much does a TENS machine cost?

Small, hand-held units sell at local pharmacies for as little as $50. These devices will usually only come with two electrode pads and be quite limited in their treatment options. More expensive units which have multiple treatment options can range from $100-$300 depending on the brand. Professional machines used by physiotherapists can cost upwards of $1500. These units last a long time and are much more durable than personal devices.

Precautions / Contraindications

As with any treatment, there are always risks and contraindications for use. IF you are unsure about your own risk, then please consult with a physiotherapist before using a TENS device.

The contraindications:

The precautions:

Are you still suffering from pain?

Whilst a TENS machine may provide great help and potential pain relief - it isn't designed to be a cure-all. Find a local physiotherapist who can help treat your injury or pain and get back to your active self.

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