Health Benefits of a TENS UnitA TENS unit is a machine that uses electricity to ease pain.  It can be used to treat pain in just about any part of the body.  “TENS” stands for “transcutaneous electronic nerve stimulator” and applies electrical energy across the skin.  It stimulates your peripheral nerves by passing electrical impulses through the skin and toward the peripheral nerves.

TENS units are ideally used for short term pain relief that is not serious in nature.  It can, however, be used for long term pain if your doctor says it is okay to use the TENS unit for a longer period of time.  You should always check with your doctor if you are trying to use this type of unit.

The TENS Unit and Short Term Pain Relief

The TENS unit controls pain in either of these ways:

  • It causes motor stimulation. The TENS unit causes the release of endogenous endorphins, which naturally kill the pain. The stimulation of the nerves is what causes the release of endogenous endorphins, which are pain-killing neurotransmitters in the brain.
  • It causes sensory stimulation. The electricity of the TENS unit blocks the transmission of pain signals in the sensory nerves. It blocks the “neural gate”, which is where the pain travels through.

How a TENS Unit is Used

The TENS unit can be used in any one of the following ways:

  • Motor Level Stimulation. This is also known as a “strong low rate” TENS unit” or an “acupuncture-like” TENS unit. It applies electricity using low frequency pulses. In this way, the goal of the TENS unit is to cause the muscles to twitch, leading to the stimulation of the nerves supplying the muscles and is usually used to manage chronic pain.
  • Sensory Level Stimulation. This is also known as a “high rate” TENS unit or a “conventional” TENS Unit.  It uses short pulses of electricity to relieve pain.  When the TENS unit is used in this way, the goal is to stimulate the nerves supplying the skin.  The downside of using the TENS unit in this way is that the pain tends to come back again after you stop using the unit. It is used for both chronic and acute pain.
  • Blended Sensory and Motor Level Stimulation. This is also known as a “brief intense” TENS unit. It blocks both the motor and sensory nerves.  It is often used in minor surgery so the patient doesn’t feel the pain during surgery.  When the TENS unit is used this way, the pain is usually relieved for several hours after it is used.
  • Noxious Level Stimulation. This is also called “hyperstimulation. It stimulated the nerves through electrodes that resemble probes.  It is often used when other TENS methods have not been able to manage the pain.  As this type of TENS unit stimulation is painful, it is often used as a last resort.  The idea is to have relief of your pain after you have used the unit

How TENS Units Might Help Pain

No one knows exactly how a TENS unit works. It has been used since the 1960s when scientists discovered the “gate control theory of pain”.  According to the gain control theory, the TENS unit closes a gate mechanism in the spinal cord, which reduces the pain.  The electrodes are placed in the area of the pain and stimulates the painful nerves.

The TENS unit is beneficial because it can treat pain without having to resort to medication. There are no toxic effects in using a TENS unit and it can be beneficial in both acute and chronic pain.

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