What is a TENS Unit?
A TENS Unit is one of several kinds of electrotherapy devices that use very small doses of electric current to promote natural pain relief. The word TENS, sometimes abbreviated as T.E.N.S., stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator.
The TENS machine itself is a small electronic device that delivers current through electrodes placed on the skin. Unlike systemic drugs, which affect the entire body, electrotherapy targets pain exactly where it occurs.
A TENS unit is simple and easy to use and compact provide quick and dependable pain relief at work, home or play.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS Units) is a highly effective treatment for chronic and acute pain. It is used extensively and recommended by sports coaches, physiotherapy, pain clinics, doctors and other medical practitioners. A TENS unit will relieve pain, you should notice immediate results, and you can leave on for hours a day and for many the relief is dramatic.
There is nothing “magic” about Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS). TENS machines are intended to be used to relieve pain. The TENS unit sends comfortable impulses through the skin that stimulate the nerve (or nerves) in the treatment area. In many cases, this stimulation will greatly reduce or eliminate the pain sensation the patient feels. Pain relief varies by individual patient, mode selected for therapy, and the type of pain. In many patients, the reduction or elimination of pain lasts longer than the actual period of stimulation (sometimes as much as three to four times longer). In others, pain is only modified while stimulation actually occurs.
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Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): TENS unit can be used by patient at home for relieving pain on a long term basis. It allows the user to adjust the intensity of the stimulation, select high frequency stimulation or low frequency stimulation. High frequency stimulation is called conventional which is tolerable for hours but results in pain relief for shorter period of time. Whereas, low frequency stimulation is called acupuncture- like which is uncomfortable and tolerable for 20 to 30 minutes but results in pain relief for longer period of time. TENS unit users can also use electrode placements by placing the electrodes over the painful area or over the nerve supplying the painful area or even on the opposite side of the body.
How Do TENS Units Work?
Electrical impulses are transmitted from an electrical device to the surface of the skin. The unit is connected to the surface of the skin with electrode pads. Units range in size and amount of power output. Some are small and battery powered, while others are hand held, or even desk-top size. Wearable models are also available.
Prior to use, gels are available to eliminate the need for the electrode to be taped. These gels enhance the conductivity from the electrode to the skin. Tensive gel is recommended by suppliers of TENS units.
Why Does TENS Work?
There are two theories that explain why this technology works as an alternate therapy for acute and chronic pain. The first is the Gateway Theory. Its premise is that the electrical stimulation blocks pain that is transmitted through nerve endings.
The second theory is the Endorphin-release Theory. These electrical currents trigger the body to produce endorphins which help the body's nerve system to combat pain. This type of therapy produces, and provides, thousands of individuals with relief from back and neck pain, and recovery from surgery and injury, without the need for prescription drugs.
"TENS units are an affordable alternative for those suffering pain," Maroney explained. "No matter which theory you or your medical professional believes in, this technology is becoming more mainstream in the U.S.; it has developed a reputation as an effective alternative therapy."
Is continual use of a TENS unit addictive?
No. One of the problems encountered in the medical field of pain relief is sometimes a patient is told to only use the TENS unit for one hour then off. That is not correct. The TENS unit is used when you have pain while sitting down, trying to get to sleep at night, or exercising such as golfing, aerobics etc. If you turn the unit off and your pain returns then turn it back on. The unit can be used 24/7. The longest term study ever done on duration of tens usage was done by Duke Medical Center on 5,000 patients. The results have shown that many patients used their units 24 hours daily for weeks then tapered off usage to only when pain became very difficult.
When should one NOT use a TENS unit?
If you have had a "demand" type pacemaker implanted, then do not use. Pregnant women should not use or any person who has not been evaluated by a physician to determine if there is an underlying physiologic cause for the pain being experienced.
"Electrical Fields" on the body is something I've heard about but the professionals say it doesn't exist. Is that true or not? There are electrical fields around each person's body and these fields are created by your body. The simple way to prove this is to simply use an "ohm" meter, available from Radio Shack, electrical supply stores, etc, and the electrical resistance on one's body varies constantly. In particular with chronic pain patients there is a detectable, quantifiable change in areas of pain, before and after, using electrical stimulation in the painful area.
Are "trigger" and 'acupuncture" points the same points? No. Acupuncture points are defined by anatomical location using a standard "CUN" measurement which is specific to the patient's body size. Trigger points are locations which show defining electrical characteristics. It is not unusual though for the terms to be used interchangeably and clincially can produce positive results when used with electrical stimulation.
Can pain relief gels/lotions be used with TENS for prolonged relief ?
Yes. It actually may be beneficial to use them in conjunction with the TENS unit. The TENS unit can increase the blood flow to the painful area and the absorption of the gel may be enhanced by giving better penetration and pain relief from the gel. The "carryover" effect of using TENS is enhanced with the use of topical gels. Carryover is the amount of time one has after using a TENS unit before the pain returns and the patient is uncomfortbable again.
Can electrical stimulation help open wounds heal and bones that will not reattach?
Yes. Most of the studies were done on wounds with a form of stimulation called pulsed galvanic stim. There was one report on the use of TENS for decubitus ulcers. Electrical stimulation can be very helpful for diabetic patients who have open wounds occur on their feet and legs. For bones, the current is generally a micro current or the use of the electrical field created by a circumduction coil.
For many, living with acute and chronic pain is an everyday battle. Most people suffering from these types of pain have only been given the choice of drugs to free them from their affliction.
However, there is hope. TENS, an acronym for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, is a drug-free alternative. It works by sending low-voltage, electrical pulses to the surface of the skin to combat pain. These pulses are transmitted to the underlying nerves. The strength and duration of the pulses are adjusted to suit the individual's needs.
Current TENS technology is based on the research of physicians, Ronald Melzack and Patrick D. Walls in a study titled: "Pain Mechanism: A New Theory."
The use of this technology is broadly applied in many areas that include: sports medicine, chiropractic care, and rehabilitation centers. Senior living communities utilize the therapy and it can also be used at home.
Electrotherapy and Chronic Pain
Electrotherapy can help relieve and manage chronic pain. This kind of pain is usually the result of an accident or other injury, perhaps to the lower back or a joint in the hand or knee. If it lasts long enough, the pain itself becomes a disease. The most common forms of chronic pain are back pain and arthritis.
Chronic pain is often treated with over-the-counter painkillers and prescription drugs. These drugs may have unwanted side effects and can be very expensive. In contrast, a TENS therapy provides drug-free relief for the pain of arthritis, back pain, sciatica and many other kinds of chronic pain at a very affordable cost.