What are TENS Units and How do They Work?

an example of a tens unit
Tens Unit example

TENS is an acronym that stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A TENS unit is a battery powered pocket sized device that is used to control pain by sending mild electrical signals to specified parts of the body. The electrical signals are very mild but they are enough to prevent pain signals from being sent to the brain. They can also increase the level of endorphins, which are a natural painkiller produced by the brain, thus reducing or totally eliminating the pain feeling.

How does a TENS unit work?

The TENS unit is connected to the skin through the use of two or more electrodes. There is a lot of controversy about the effectiveness of the TENS unit though specialists insist that it provides low risk nerve stimulation that is non-invasive and capable of reducing both chronic and acute pain. TENS units are said to control many types of pain including short term pain like that resulting from an accident or surgery. It is also used to control long term pain such as that resulting from chronic illnesses like arthritis, cancer pain, back or muscular pain amongst others.

It is important that one uses the TENS machine only under the direction of a physical therapist, a doctor or an occupational therapist. It is simple enough to use and all one has to do is place the self-stick pads on opposite sides of the area experiencing the pain and turn on the dial up till the point that one feels a tingling sensation. The patient should then let it run for a period of 20 minutes after this. The tingling feeling may feel like a massage to the area it is applied to.

How to Use a Tens Unit

It is recommended that TENS machines are used under the direct supervision of a doctor, though the patient needs to know how to:

  • Correctly place the electrodes
  • Change the batteries
  • Operate the TENS machine
  • Adjust the frequency and the voltage

This is considered to be a very safe method of alleviating pain and can be used on any part of the body except the heart, the front of the neck and over the eyes. It will not affect any drugs the patient may be taking ad does not call for the use of a needle or any other such similar equipment.

During the TENS treatment, the patient should notify the therapist or doctor if they feel their muscles start to twitch. This could be as a result of the TENS unit sending signals that are too strong or too fast. If the patient does not experience any tingling sensation then this means that the signal is way too low to have any effect. For those patients using the TENS unit all through the day and night, removal of the electrodes at least once a day is necessary. Also cleaning of the area where the electrodes had been placed should be done. It is important not to get into water while using the TENS machine or while it is turned on. Sleeping with the unit is also not advised.

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