TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) can be an effective tool to calm chronic pain in the home. You can walk into most local pharmacies and buy a TENS unit over the counter but what do you do with it when you get home?
What is it and how does it work?
Electrical impulses between either 2 or 4 stick on electrodes are said to reduce the pain signals going to the spinal cord and brain by overriding pain signals with a tingling sensation. TENS may help relieve pain and relax muscles, and stimulate the production of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.
TENS isn’t a cure for pain but can provide short-term relief while it is being used. Giving the brain ‘time out’ from pain can make it much more manageable. Treatment with TENS is generally very safe and you may feel it’s worth trying it out.
How to use the TENS at Home
Low back pain
Electrodes can be placed either side of the spine where it hurts or both on one side along the line of the spinal muscles. For low lumbar pain it’s often a good to try putting one higher up under the ribs because stiffness in the thoracic area can refer to the low back.
Sciatic pain originates from the back so try one electrode next to the spine and the other either in the buttock, thigh or calf depending on where it hurts the most.
If you have 4 electrodes you may try 2 across the spine and another 2 along the line of pain, perhaps in the buttock and thigh.
Neck to arm pain
Never place electrodes over the front or sides of the neck. There are very important blood vessels here. Some people will put them on the top of the shoulders but take caution to go slowly with intensity because it can be a very sensitive area.
Across the upper back is OK, or one on the shoulder blade and a second in the upper or lower arm. Best to keep to the outer arm. The inner arm has the heart channel and we don’t want to over stimulate here.
Hamstring or Calf Spasm
Electrodes can be placed at either end of the muscle or more locally to a muscle knot.
Dosage and Frequency
Most TENS units have a couple of frequencies so make sure to read the instructions carefully. As a rule, pain is better controlled using a higher frequency and gradually increase the intensity until it starts to become a little uncomfortable. You will find that your nerves will accommodate to the sensation so it’s OK to gradually increase the intensity while in use.
Lower frequencies may cause muscle twitching which can be uncomfortable.
Some years ago I had sciatica and needed to drive from Melbourne to Queensland. I had the TENS on and running most of the way and coped OK. However, I don’t recommend you try it if your symptoms are acute. A bulging disc, for instance, does not like sustained sitting.
At home, you may choose to have the electrodes attached, the TENS unit on your belt and go about your daily chores. Leaving it on for anything from 10 minutes to a couple of hours is OK
Contraindications for use
Never place the pads over:
- the front or sides of your neck
- your temples
- your mouth or eyes
- your chest and upper back at the same time
- irritated, infected or broken skin
- varicose veins
- numb areas
I am happy to answer any questions either in question/answers below.