How a TENS Unit Could Help With Fibromyalgia Pain

A TENS unit isn't a typical part of a fibromyalgia treatment regimen. Odds are good that your healthcare providers have never suggested it. But is it something you should ask about? A small but growing body of scientific literature suggests that it just might be.

Four electrodes from a TENS unit are on a woman's bare back.
Stefan Rupp/Getty Images

What Is TENS?

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. It's a common part of physical therapy, where the therapist uses a large machine. Personal units that you can use at home are also available.

A personal TENS unit is a pocket-sized device with a couple of cables that attach to electrodes. You stick the electrodes around where you've got pain, and the device sends a little electricity through the area.

Why does that relieve pain? Because of a built-in feature of our brains.

As our senses take in the world, we bring in far too much information for our brains to process. That means it has to filter out what it deems less important.

As part of this filtering process, our brains are designed to favor new input. TENS exploits this trait by essentially distracting your nerves with a tingly new sensation, thus stopping them from sending pain signals.

Typically, the stimulation is delivered in short bursts or patterns, rather than as a constant stream. That's to keep your brain interested in it for longer periods of time. Otherwise, it would start to filter it out before long.

It's more than just distraction, though. TENS is also believed to get your brain to release endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers.

Pain leads to tension, which leads to more pain, which leads to more tension, etc. Breaking that cycle can give your muscles the relief that can be so hard to come by, and TENS may help break that cycle.

TENS is generally considered a very safe treatment. As long as the strength of the electricity isn't set too high, it isn't painful. It won't interact with medications or other treatments. It won't make you loopy like pain drugs can, and it rarely causes unwanted side effects. With a personal unit, you can use it when you need it the most and without having to make an appointment or leave the house.

Some people can't tolerate TENS or should not use it, including those who:

  • Have pain from an unknown source or undiagnosed pain
  • Are pregnant
  • Have certain types of heart disease
  • Have a pacemaker
  • Have epilepsy
  • Have known or suspected cancer
  • Have a blood clot (as it can dislodge the clot)
  • Have a bleeding disorder
  • Have infected tissue or open wounds near the area to be treated

TENS for Fibromyalgia

So far, we haven't seen a lot of research on TENS for fibromyalgia pain, but what we have appears promising. As with other treatments, it doesn't work for everyone, but it does help some of us.

Research suggests when used as an adjuvant to other treatment for fibomyalgia, TENS helps relieve pain, anxiety, fatigue, and stiffness, as well as making it easier for people with chronic pain to work.

Some research suggests that TENS may even have a calming effect on the central nervous system (CNS). A central feature of fibromyalgia is believed to be a hyper-sensitized CNS, which is called central sensitization, so anything that will calm it down is likely to be a benefit.

A study published in Rheumatology International suggests that it may help alleviate fibromyalgia pain associated with exercise.

TENS is recommended as part of a larger treatment plan, not as a sole treatment.

Getting a TENS Unit

Some insurance providers, including Medicare cover TENS units and replacement electrodes (they wear out after several uses) when the unit is prescribed by a healthcare provider.

Units are available to buy without a prescription. They run from about $25 to $100. You can get packs of replacement electrodes starting around $15.

A benefit of getting one prescribed is that your healthcare provider will likely send you to a physical therapist to learn how to use it, which may help you be more successful. We need our treatments to do their job well and not cause further problems. Using a TENS unit incorrectly could really aggravate your muscles.

If you buy one on your own, you should make sure your healthcare provider knows you're using it.

A Word From Verywell

Always remember that what works for some of us doesn't work for all of us. It's best to approach each treatment with cautious optimism. If a TENS doesn't seem to be right for you, don't stick with it just because it worked for someone else.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Electrotherapy. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS).

  2. Teoli D, An J. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.

  3. Carbonario F, Matsutani LA, Yuan SL, et al. Effectiveness of high-frequency transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation at tender points as adjuvant therapy for patients with fibromyalgiaEur J Phys Rehabil Med. 49(2):197-204.

  4. Nijs J, Meeus M, Van Oosterwijck J, et al. Treatment of central sensitization in patients with 'unexplained' chronic pain: what options do we have?Expert Opin Pharmacother. 12(7):1087-1098. doi:10.1517/14656566.2011.547475

  5. Mutlu B, Paker N, Bugdayci D, et al. Efficacy of supervised exercise combined with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in women with fibromyalgia: a prospective controlled studyRheumatol Int. 33(3):649-655. doi:10.1007/s00296-012-2390-8

  6. United Healthcare Medicare Advantage. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) for Acute Post-Operative Pain (NCD 10.2).

  7. Amazon. TENS machine.

Additional Reading

By Adrienne Dellwo
Adrienne Dellwo is an experienced journalist who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and has written extensively on the topic.