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What is a TENS unit?

Recent studies have suggested that transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which uses controlled, low-voltage electrical stimulation of the skin to relieve pain, may bring relief for people with burns. Your physical therapist will connect you to a “TENS unit,” through which you’ll receive continuous pulses of electrical stimulation via four electrode pads placed on the pain site (or earlobe). The TENS unit is  connected to a small, portable battery-operated device. The pulses might feel like a mild tingling, tapping, or massaging sensation and are thought to interrupt pain impulses from the periphery to the central nervous system. It is also thought that TENS works by increasing the production of endorphins, the body’s natural opioids, and improves blood supply to the painful site on the body.

Percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (PENS) is a technique that uses acupuncture-like needle probes positioned in the soft tissues and/or muscles to stimulate peripheral sensory nerves at appropriate levels. Some believe that PENS may be more effective than TENS or exercise therapy in patients with persistent or chronic pain.
William Lee Dubois
Endocrinology Diabetes & Metabolism
TENS stands for Transdermal Electrical Nerve Stimulator (say that ten times really fast).  TENS systems are a way of treating pain without the use of medications. A recent study found that about 50% of people who try them find them effective.

This is how they work: all nerve impulses, including pain signals, use electricity to transmit information from any part of your body to your brain. So if you step on a tack, for instance, nerve cells in your foot fire off a message of pain up the network of nerve cells to your brain, using electrical impulses.

The concept behind the TENS is to introduce “static” into the nerve cells around an injury so that the pain messages are either scrambled or masked.

The TENS units themselves are a bit larger than a cell phone, and are typically powered by 9-volt batteries. The unit connects to “pads” using a pair of wires. The pads are reusable sticky foam electrodes that can be placed on your skin to surround an area of pain. The pads come in many sizes and shapes. TENS units can power either two or four pads.

The control unit allows you to change both  the intensity and frequency of the electricity being delivered to your skin. The sensation generated by the unit can range from a mild vibration (like a massaging chair) all the way up to I’m-getting-a-tattoo pain.

TENS units are typically used for either chronic pain, or post-surgery re-hab. The systems range between $100 and $600, depending on features, and may or may not be covered by your insurance.

An important thing to remember is that TENS treat pain, but are in no way therapeutic. They do nothing to promote healing, they are simply a non-medication pain killer. That said, I think they are wonderful. I have degenerative spinal disease and wear a TENS unit routinely when I have flare-ups of pain.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.