What is a Portable TENS Unit?

N. Madison

A portable TENS unit is a device designed to provide pain relief by stimulating a person’s nerves. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which means it stimulates a person’s nerves through his skin. TENS units come in a variety of sizes, but a portable unit is designed to make it easy and convenient for a person to carry the device with him and use it during the normal course of his day. Sometimes these units are designed to clip onto a person’s belt or pocket, making them very easy to carry around.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Portable TENS machines are attached to a person’s skin via electrodes. When the machine is turned on, it sends electrical impulses though the electrodes and into the patient’s body. The electrical impulses are small and considered safe. However, pregnant women, people with epilepsy or pacemakers, and those who aren’t sure why they’re experiencing pain may be advised to avoid TENS machine use.

A person may use a portable TENS machine to gain pain relief from conditions and injuries that involve the nerves, muscles, and joints. TENS machines are said to tackle pain in two different ways, depending on the level of intensity used. When set on a higher level, TENS machines are said to stimulate nerves that do not signal pain. This may cause the nerves that don't signal pain to interfere with or block the transmission of pain signals from those that do signal pain. Lower levels may help the body to produce endorphins, which are compounds that act as natural pain relievers in blocking the transmission of pain signals to the brain.

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The primary reason to use a portable TENS unit is convenience. These devices can clip to a belt or pocket, allowing the wearer to have pain relief all day. This means a user can experience pain relief while he’s working, driving, standing in line, watching television or performing any number of tasks. Portable TENS units typically use batteries, freeing the wearer from finding an electrical socket when he wants pain relief. The device can be turned off and on as needed and usually has different modes that allow the user to adjust the frequency and intensity of the electrical impulses.

TENS units may be most effective for treating people with mild-to-moderate levels of pain. Pain relief generally varies from person to person. Some people use a portable TENS unit for a short period of time and have pain relief for a few hours after using it. In some cases, however, patients only experience pain reduction if they keep the unit on continuously. Once they turn the unit off, the pain returns. Others do not experience pain relief when using TENS machines.

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