TENS Electrical Stimulation for Pain Relief

Electrical stimulation applied to a woman's rotator cuff.
Your physical therapist may apply TENS to help decrease your pain. E+/Getty Images

A TENS unit is a type of therapeutic modality typically used in physical therapy clinics. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It is a small battery operated machine that uses electrical stimulation to decrease pain. TENS can be used to help manage both chronic and acute pain; your physical therapist can help determine the best use of TENS for your condition.

If you have an injury or illness that causes limited functional mobiliy and pain, you may benefit from physical therapy to help you manage your pain and regain your mobility. Your PT may choose to use therapeutic modalities, like TENS, as part of your comprehensive rehab program.

How Do You Use TENS?

TENS is used by applying small electrodes to your body with an adhesive. The electrodes should be over the area that is causing you pain. Your PT can set up the TENS unit for the correct application, and then the machine is turned on and an electrical current is sent through the electrodes. A tingling sensation is felt in the underlying skin and muscle. 

You can slowly and carefully increase the intensity of the stimulation provided by the TENS. The intensity should be raised until the sensation provided underneath the electrodes feels strong, but comfortable. You will feel a slight tingling and massaging sensation underneath the electrodes.

TENS should be applied for 15 to 30 minutes, and it can be used several times per day. Some people have small home TENS units that can be worn as you go through the day. Care should be taken, though. TENS should not be used while bathing or showering, while driving a car, or while sleeping.

What Does TENS Do?

This signal from TENS disrupts the pain signal that is being sent from the affected area to the surrounding nerves. When TENS is applied, you brain will pay attention to the electrical signal, and not pay attention to your pain signal. This is called the gate theory of TENS—imagine your pain pathways have a gate that opens up to your brain. Only one signal gets through the gait at a time.

It is theorized that TENS may also work be increasing the release of pain-fighting endorphins in the area where the electricity is supplied. This natural chemically-mediated process can help decrease your pain and give you a feeling of well being.

Does TENS Really Work?

TENS can be an effective pain reliever, but it should not be your only treatment when using it in physical therapy. Research indicates that TENS does not work for everybody, and it got a grade of "C" by the Philadelphia Panel for Efficacy in Physical Therapy Treatments. This means that research does not consistently indicate that TENS is the most effective treatment for certain conditions.

It is important to work closely with your doctor and physical therapist to determine if TENS is a good treatment option for your specific condition. One of the most effective treatments for any condition in physical therapy is therapeutic exercise. This has been proven to be a safe and effective way to improve your mobilit and decrease your pain.

If you have pain, check in with your doctor, and visit your physical therapist to get started on the correct treatment regimen for you. Your PT may choose a trial of TENS for you to see if it can offer you pain relief. That way, you can quickly and safely get back to your normal activity level.

Also Known As: transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.

Edited by Brett Sears, PT, the Expert Physical Therapist at Verywell.com.

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