Benjamin Franklin took history by storm the day he took a kite out into a thunderstorm with a key attached to it. But as famous as this experiment is, it wasn’t an isolated event. In fact, just four years before that famous storm, doctors experimented with using electricity to treat paralysis patients.
In the over 270 years since then, the medical world has refined the art of using electricity for patients. And nearly three centuries worth of research and experimentation has culminated into a device known as the TENS Unit. For those wanting to reap the harvest of their efforts, we have compiled the ultimate guide to TENS Units machines and what you need to know about them.
What Is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, exposes your body’s nerves to low-wat electrical signals to provide pain relief. Science offers several theories as to why this works.
The Gate Control Theory
This theory coincides with the creation of the first TENS unit back in 1965. This theory, created by Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall, states that when we are hurt, pain signals travel through the central nervous system, to the spinal cord, and up to the brain. As they do, they pass through several “gates.”
These gates, which are made from a combination of large and small fibers, can either impede the pain signal’s journey through the nervous system or allow it to pass. When the signal is allowed to pass freely, we feel more pain. When it is inhibited, we perceive less pain. TENS therapy helps impede these signals to offer relief.
Endorphin Production Theory
Endorphins are often presented in public discussions as a feel-good or “happy” hormone. However, endorphins do more than simply improve your mood. They are also our bodies’ natural pain killers.
We can cause our body to release endorphins by taking part in pleasant activities like laughing, exercising, or singing. But some suggest that TENS treatments may also help our bodies produce endorphins, which would also help reduce pain.
A Note On EMS
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation is often mistaken for another, similar therapy called electric muscle stimulation, or EMS. Like TENS, EMS involves exposing the body to electrical signals. Where they differ is the goal of the treatment.
While the goal of TENS is to reduce pain, EMS is primarily used to stimulate muscle growth and is often used in conjunction with physical therapy. It’s worth noting that some TENS units are equipped to offer EMS treatments as well.
What Is TENS Used For?
As mentioned, TENS treatments are primarily used to reduce pain. This makes them a viable treatment for a wide variety of conditions that cause chronic pain. A few common examples include:
- Chronic muscle pain
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Neuropathic pain
- Menstrual pain
- Labor pain
- Diabetic neuropathy
As with any treatment, you should consult your primary care physician before you attempt to incorporate TENS into your wellness regimen.
Who Shouldn’t Use a TENS Unit?
In almost every case, TENS is considered a safe treatment with little to no side effects. However, there are a few groups who may have negative responses to the treatment. The following people should avoid TENS treatment:
- Pacemaker patients: Because pacemakers work primarily with electrical impulses, the TENS charges may interfere with the device.
- Epileptics: When someone with epilepsy has a seizure, their brain produces an abnormal burst of electrical energy. Because of this, TENS charges can potentially trigger a seizure in patients with epilepsy, especially when electrodes are applied to the shoulders, neck, or head.
- Pregnant women: While TENS can be used effectively on women who are in labor, women who are in earlier stages of pregnancy may find that it causes unintended uterine contractions and potentially early labor.
Additionally, you should avoid placing the electrodes of the TENS unit close to areas of damaged skin, such as rashes or open wounds. Doing so may increase pain in these areas and damage tissue.
How Do TENS Units Work?
TENS units are relatively simple to use, even without any medical background. As far as what you need to know to use a TENS unit machine, you generally just need an understanding of its two main components: the electronic pad and electrodes.
The TENS Pad
The pad will function differently depending on the device that you buy. However, most have similar functionality, such as the ability to control the voltage, intensity, and how long the different pulses last. They also allow you to control the different electrodes by what part of the body they’re placed on for maximum control over your experience.
The electrodes are small wired or wireless conductors placed in gel or cloth containers that attach directly to the skin, depending on the area where the pain is greatest. For instance:
- The neck
- Lower back
Because the spine is one of the primary locations where electrical activity is concentrated in the body, placing an electrode directly on the spine can dimmish the effect of the TENS treatment.
Note On Skin Preparation
It’s important to take the time to prepare the skin before placing an electrode. Wash the area with soap and water and dry the skin thoroughly before applying the skin adhesive. As mentioned, you should never place an electrode over broken skin.
Some areas of the body can be challenging to apply an electrode to, such as the hands, feet, or joints. There are specially made TENS clothing items available to better reach these areas, such as gloves, socks, and knee or elbow sleeves. These garments have silver woven into them to make them conductive and can be used similarly to an electrode.
How Long Should I Use a TENS Unit?
The beauty of TENS treatments is that they are noninvasive and non-addictive. That means there is no limit to how often or how long you can use a TENS unit. Many people stick to a baseline of about thirty minutes, but you can use it multiple times a day for as long as necessary.
Ready to take your place in the proud history of electrotherapy? Our digital TENS units provide reliable relief to your aches and pains without the aid of pain medication.