Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS, can help to relieve a wide variety of pain, including low back pain, myofascial (muscle related) pain, neurogenic (arising from the nervous system) pain, visceral pain (for example, pain resulting from irritable bowel syndrome), postsurgical pain, and joint pain (for example, bursitis or arthritis). It can be effective for both chronic and acute forms of pain, so long as the pain is not severe.
TENS uses a generator and two electrodes to send an electrical current through part of the nervous system. The electrodes are placed strategically on the skin of the patient, either over the area causing pain or in a related area that can be identified by a doctor. The generator is activated to produce the electrical current that is sent through the electrodes into the nervous system. The electrical current then stimulates an increase in the activity of endorphins, our bodies’ natural pain fighters. It also is thought to block the path of pain signals heading to the thalamus and cortex, the two parts of the brain that enable us to perceive painful sensations. If the signals from the nerves fail to reach the brain, as they do when TENS is operating, pain cannot be felt in the area targeted by the electrical current.
Typically, a one hour trial period of TENS is implemented in-office to ensure that the patient experiences pain relief from the system before they are supplied with one. If the trial is successful, the doctor trains the patient in how to adjust the settings of their stimulator. The amplitude (strength), duration, and frequency of the electrical current are at the command of the patient. In this way, TENS is a dynamic treatment option for patients, who can adjust their treatment according to their particular needs and lifestyle in order to achieve optimal results. Additionally, once the patient has been trained in how to use TENS, they can operate the system at home, at their convenience.
TENS tends to produce rapid relief. More than half of patients usually experience pain relief within the first half hour of stimulation, while almost all of the remaining patients feel their pain subside within an hour of stimulation. As with any other treatment, it is important to consult with the doctor about the proper use of TENS to help avoid negative side-effects, such as skin irritation.
Though the basic concept of TENS is similar to another stimulation technique, called spinal cord stimulation, there are a few major differences. First, with TENS, the stimulators remain on the skin, whereas with spinal cord stimulation, the stimulators are implanted within the body. Additionally, spinal cord stimulation operates primarily on the spine, whereas TENS deals more with the nerves and only part of the spine.
Side effects and outcomes are unique to each patient and will be discussed before any treatment options are prescribed.