TENS is short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It is a safe, inexpensive, and non-invasive method of stimulating nerves by applying electricity to the surface of the skin.
Because it can be used to stimulate almost any nerve in the body, TENS has a very diverse range of uses.
How Do TENS work?
It’s not actually known for certain how TENS might work, although a few prominent theories claim to explain at least some of its effects.
The most common explanation of how TENS works for pain relief involves the “Gate Control” theory of pain. The basic idea is that stimulating large areas of the skin may shut off or suppress the nervous system in the upper part of the spinal cord. Closing this “gate” may prevent pain signals from passing to the brain from the rest of your body
Reduced pain may cause the body to release natural (“endogenous”) opoids or the body’s “natural painkillers” — according to another explanation.
Repeated use of a TENS unit may also lead to gradual changes in the nearby muscles which allows them to relax more easily, which could lead to decreased sensations of pain in those muscles.
Uses of the TENS unit
1) TENS May Help Fight Pain
In one study (RCT) the TENS unit reduced shoulder pain and improved shoulder joint mobility of 90 participants with shoulder pain from paralysis on one side of the body (hemiplegia). TENS also improved their overall quality of life [R].
The TENS unit may also help people suffering from chronic pain. In an observational study of 33 people with chronic back pain, 14 (42%) of them experienced at least a 30% pain reduction from TENS. And out of the 14, 13 felt the benefits within an hour or less of using the TENS unit [R].
A study (DB-PCT) of 60 patients with upper back pain found that using a TENS unit reduced pain much better than placebo [R].
In another study of patients with back pain, those who used TENS ended up making significantly fewer hospital and clinic visits [R].
A study (RCT) in arthritis patients found that using a TENS unit helped reduce pain during walking and at rest [R].
The TENS unit may also help with pain related to dental procedures. Using the TENS unit in preparation for cavity-filling treatments suppressed pain during the procedure in 80% of patients in one study [R].
2) TENS May Reduce Pain After Surgery
A study (RCT) with 54 patients that underwent spinal surgery found that TENS had a pain-reducing effect (analgesia). It reduced the number of needed painkillers and their side effects[R].
Patients who used a TENS machine after surgery required less pain-relieving medication in another large study (PCT) of 1,350 people [R].
Those who used a TENS unit after surgery had lower levels of pain than those in the control group in a study (RCT) of 40 patients who underwent surgery that required a large chest incision (a procedure called posterolateral thoracotomy, often used for lung or heart surgery) [R].
In a study (RCT) with 40 patients who underwent open-heart surgery, using the TENS unit at acupuncture points (“Acu-TENS”) helped to return blood pressure and heart rate to normal more quickly and using fewer medications (compared to patients who did not use TENS) [R].
Both high- and low-intensity TENS treatment helped relieve pain following a major surgery in another study (RCT) of 64 patients [R].
Patients who used TENS after surgery had an improved breathing, less pain, and required less pain-killing drugs than patients who did not use TENS in a study (PCT) with 50 patients who underwent chest surgery. A related study concluded that using a TENS unit alongside painkillers relieves pain much better than just the medication [R, R].
However, not all studies have found a beneficial effect on pain after surgery.For example, in one study (PCT) with 45 patients who received surgery (pulmonary artery bypass), using TENS did not significantly reduce pain. While the reason for this lack of effect is not known, this study may illustrate how small, subtle differences in TENS procedures might make a big difference in terms of its effectiveness and health benefits [R].
3) TENS May Reduce and Prevent Migraines
A study (RCT) with 110 patients found that applying TENS at the base of the head (occipital nerve) significantly decreased the duration of headaches in migraine sufferers. It also had low rates of side effects, making it attractive to patients that did not want to take medications for their migraines [R].
Similarly, a study in 57 patients found that using a TENS unit reduced both the number and intensity of pain episodes in a headache and migraine sufferers [R].
Another study (RCT) found that the use of TENS for headaches decreased medication use and helped patients manage their chronic migraine symptoms better [R].
Finally, another study in migraine patients reported that TENS treatment reduced the total amount of days with a headache. 66% of the patients in this study decided to continue using a TENS unit to keep their headaches at bay, although the patients who followed the TENS directions the best reported the greatest benefits at a follow-up [R].
4) TENS May Help Fight Depression
A technique called Transcutaneous Vagus Nerve Stimulation — or “tVNS” for short — is a method of using TENS to stimulate the vagus nerve (which is done by hooking the TENS unit up to specific parts of the ear).
This TENS technique has shown some very promising data on helping with psychological disorders such as depression. A large number of studies have found that tVNS can help fight the symptoms of depression — for example, by stimulating the regions of the brain associated with reward processing and motivation — and leads to significant and measurable improvements in depression patients’ overall level of symptoms [R, R, R, R, R, R, R].
5) TENS May Aid In Stroke Recovery
Strokes often cause extensive damage throughout the brain, which can cause a lot of long-term after-effects that can be very difficult to recover from. Many stroke patients end up having difficulties moving and walking, although some evidence shows that TENS treatment may help stroke victims recover from these impairments.
A study (PCT) in 14 chronic stroke patients found that pairing TENS treatment with exercise improved their balance and enhanced their ability to walk and that these improvements were significantly greater than those from just exercise alone [R].
Similar results were found in another study (RCT) with 34 stroke patients. Pairing TENS with exercise training over 6 weeks led to improved balance, walking ability (gait), and reduced muscle stiffness and spasms [R].
TENS also increased the effectiveness of exercise in stroke sufferers by increasing their walking speed and walking distance in a study (R-PCT) of 109 patients [R].
Another study (PCT) with 14 stroke patients reported that TENS treatment helped improve their ability to walk and control the lower halves of their body [R].
6) TENS May Boost Cardiovascular Health
In one of the relatively few studies to use a realistic “placebo” condition (RCT), 13 healthy young men were given either real or fake (“sham”) TENS treatment. The real TENS improved resting heart rates and led to better regulation of blood pressure. During fake TENS, the participants are hooked up to a real TENS machine but receive no actual electrical current — particularly important for teasing apart the actual TENS effects [R].
However, the cardiovascular benefits of TENS might not apply to everyone, but only to people who are already healthy. For example, in a study (PCT) of 45 patients, using a TENS unit after heart surgery (pulmonary artery bypass) did not reduce their future risk of heart problems [R].
Some older studies reported that TENS helped reduce high blood pressure. However, a more recent study (RCT) with 32 hypertensive patients found no evidence that the TENS unit decreases blood pressure [R].
7) TENS May Reduce Menstrual Cramps and Labor Pains
A study (DB-RCT) with 40 women who had very painful menstrual cramps (dysmenorrhea) found that TENS was effective at reducing cramp-related pain, and led to significant improvements in these patients’ quality of life. The patients used a portable TENS units, which was particularly helpful in maintaining their treatment effectively [R].
In another study (PCT) with 134 women with painful menstrual cramps, TENS reduced both the intensity and duration of pain more than a placebo treatment [R].
TENS was also useful for quickly relieving menstrual pain in a study (DB-RCT) with 40 women. Three months after the study, 70% of the women were still using the TENS unit regularly with no adverse side effects [R].
The TENS unit may relieve pain associated with giving birth. A study (PCT) found that women who used a TENS unit during their stay at the hospital experienced significantly less labor pain, suggesting that TENS may be helpful both during and after labor [R].
8) TENS May Enhance Athletic Performance
Although the evidence is somewhat mixed, some studies suggest that the muscle-relaxing effects of TENS may be helpful for increasing athletic performance.
A study (RCT) found that using a TENS unit while stretching increases athletes’ range of motion and reduces muscle pain [R].
However, another study (SB-RCT) with 13 participants who used TENS to treat their cycling-related pain found that TENS did not significantly change the amount of pain that they felt, and did not affect the amount of time it took to complete a 5km bike ride [R].
9) TENS May Help Manage Symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease
People with Parkinson’s disease often have uncontrollable shaking (motor tremors). Two studies have found that using TENS on the hands and arms of Parkinson’s patients can help suppress their uncontrollable shaking by an average of 62% [R, R].
Another common symptom of Parkinson’s is difficulty walking (“freezing of gait”). A study found that applying TENS to the feet and legs of Parkinson’s patients improved the ability to walk in 12% of the patients tested, and increased the amount of time that these patients could walk by an average of about 20% [R].
10) TENS May Help with Urinary Incontinence (Bed-Wetting)
In one study, 42 patients with overactive bladder syndrome (OBS) got a TENS unit and also kept a “bladder diary” for 48 hours to keep track of their symptoms. TENS was safe and effective for OBS, with 50% of the patients reporting that they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the treatment. TheTENS unit also completely cured uncontrolled urination (urinary incontinence) in 39% of the patients. None of the patients reported any side effects [R].
In another study (DB-RCT) on 47 children around age with bed-wetting problems, applying the TENS unit for one hour twice daily for 10 weeks did not reduce the number of bed-wetting episodes. However, another study found that 72% of the patients had a reduction of at least 1 bed-wetting night per week, which was maintained even after the study [R, R].
11) TENS May Relieve the Symptoms of Fibromyalgia
These benefits were confirmed by another study (PCT) with 39 fibromyalgia patients — TENS treatment decreased pain and fatigue. Using two TENS units together can increase these benefits even further [R, R].
However, a review (of 8 fibromyalgia studies) came to the conclusion that there is not yet sufficient evidence to say for sure that TENS consistently works to relieve pain in fibromyalgia patients [R].
12) TENS May Improve Lung Function
In a study (SB-PCT) with 50 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), TENS treatment increased the amount of air the lungs can hold (lung capacity) and improved the overall symptoms [R].
Other studies have consistently reported similar benefits — improved breathing in COPD patients during physical exertion — with both TENS and “Acu-TENS” (a technique of using TENS stimulation at acupuncture points on the body) [R, R, R].
13) TENS May Enhance Your Voice
In a study with 4o women, those who used the TENS unit had an increase in their voice quality and intensity, which made them feel more comfortable while speaking. A review of many studies (RCT) confirmed that the TENS unit can improve voice quality [R, R].
The TENS unit also improved the symptoms of behavioral dysphonia, a type of speech impairment without an unknown cause. In a study (RCT) in 30 women, TENS improved their voices and reduced speech impairment [R].
14) TENS May Help Increase Sensation in Prosthetic Limbs
When a person loses one of their limbs, they will sometimes continue to experience feelings in the parts of their body that are no longer there — a condition known as a “phantom limb”. Researchers began to search for ways to re-create the sensation of lost body parts. They applied TENS to the amputated body to develop advanced robotic replacements (prosthetic limbs) that could feel real. Although still in the early stages, this could be a huge leap forward in the technology of robotic prosthetics and body-machine interfaces [R].
With multiple benefits offered by a Tens machine, one can actually get a Tens unit for them to decrease pain without any side-effects.
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