What Is a TENS Unit and How Does It Work?
TENS units are quickly becoming one of the most popular new methods of relieving a variety of different kinds of pain. Although the term is heard more often nowadays, many people are still unaware of this new technology and therefore beg the question, “What is a TENS unit, exactly?”
TENS is actually an acronym for “Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation.” The name might sound long and complicated, but the technology behind it is actually quite straightforward. Essentially, a TENS unit is a portable machine hooked up to electrodes, which are placed on the skin with sticky patches. When the unit is switched on, it emits an electrical current that travels through the electrodes and into the body, gently stimulating the nerves beneath the skin.
When the nerve fibers are stimulated through the low frequency electrical pulses, a very interesting thing happens. The pain signals are essentially “blocked” before they can reach the brain, and therefore, the brain is “confused” into feeling the soft tingling sensation of the TENS therapy, instead of pain in that area of the body. Therefore, TENS machines are used primarily as pain “spot treatments,” and can help to target and reduce pain in an area like the knee, shoulder, wrist, or lower back. Not only do TENS machines “scramble” the pain messages from reaching the brain, they also provide a soothing massage, draw blood flow to the area to promote healing, and help the body to release endorphins.
What Is a TENS Unit Usually Used For?
Usually, TENS therapy is most effective for internal pain that is concentrated in a specific area of the body. This form of electrotherapy tends to target pain areas including:
- Stiff joints (knees, hips, ankles, wrists, etc.)
- Post-surgical pain
- Sore muscles, including after a hard workout
- Labor pain in pregnant women
TENS machines are not meant to treat pain such as: skin abrasions, rash, sunburn, cuts, bruises, sore throat, headache, etc. However, when used as directed for the correct types of pain, they can provide incredible relief, allowing people who are normally physically inhibited by pain to move around freely and comfortably throughout the day.
Unlike many prescription pain drugs (most of which are narcotics), TENS units are non-addictive, completely safe, and do not use chemicals of any kind in the body. This makes them ideal for people who have difficulty stomaching prescription medicines, or who simply wish to avoid taking any drugs altogether. They are also a great solution for people who need pain relief throughout the day, since they can be worn discretely underneath clothing if desired, and left on for hours at a time.
Side effects associated with using TENS units are scarce. It is possible that some people could experience a bit of skin irritation from the glue of the adhesive pads, but this is very rare. In the event of light muscle soreness from overuse, it’s advised to simply adjust the setting to a lower frequency level, or relocate the electrodes to a different part of the body for a day or two. Using the machines as instructed and following all steps properly usually prevents both overuse and soreness of any kind.
What Are the Additional Benefits of TENS Therapy?:
Not only do TENS machines work to intercept the body’s pain signals, they also provide a few additional benefits that can help to increase comfort and mobility:
- Firstly, the sensation felt when using them is similar to that of a massage. Many people find this aspect of TENS therapy to be extremely relaxing and comforting.
- Treatment increases blood flow to the affected area, which can help to promote healing through proper circulation of blood cells.
- During TENS therapy, the body releases endorphins, which are natural chemicals found in the body that actually increase the overall feeling of well-being and happiness. The same endorphins are released, for example, when eating certain foods like chocolate, or after performing a satisfying workout.
- Lastly, TENS machines can also help to improve muscle tone through the stimulation of the muscle fibers in the targeted area, such as the abdominal region. Some TENS units have a specific setting that is intended to be used as a muscle-toning “workout.” It is not meant as a way to lose weight, but it can help to increase muscle definition to a degree.
Are TENS Units Safe for Everyone to Use?
Although there aren’t usually any serious side effects associated with the use of TENS units, it’s important to use them as instructed in order to have the maximum benefit. People who use pacemakers, pregnant women who are not yet in labor, and young infants should not use TENS units, unless directed to do so by a doctor or certified medical professional.