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What is a TENS Device?

By Dawna Theo
Updated May 17, 2024
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A Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) device typically is used to interrupt nerve signals in the body that are causing muscles to spasm. People with conditions such as back pain, migraine headaches, arthritis, knee pain, amputations, shoulder pain, surgery recovery, or cancer might use TENS devices for pain management. The TENS device usually is a pocket-sized, battery-operated unit that a doctor may prescribe to control pain. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the TENS unit as a safe and effective method to help people who are suffering from chronic pain. TENS devices may make it possible for some people to have relief from chronic pain without the use of addicting medicines.

Each TENS device typically has four electrodes that send electrical pulses at approximately 80 to 90 Megahertz into the nerves that are sending pain signals to the brain. In addition to stopping nerve pain, the TENS device also can relax muscles spasms. When using the TENS device, the four electrodes usually are attached to the skin with sticky patches that are in the shape of an X, directly over the area experiencing pain. For example, if a person was experiencing lower back pain, he would put the electrodes on his lower back in an X over the affected area. The electrical signals then travel from one electrode under the skin to the adjacent one passing through the nerves and muscles.

Once the electrodes are in place, the unit can be turned on and the wavelength and pulse adjusted to a comfortable level. The battery back can be clipped to a belt, pants, shirt pocket, or placed in a fanny pack. Using and wearing a TENS device usually should not interrupt daily activities. Typically, a patient should notice pain relief within half an hour.

Depending on pain condition, treatment with a TENS unit may last as little as a week or for a lifetime. The treatment typically has no side effects, so a patient can use it as often as he likes. TENS units typically need to be taken off whenever a patient takes a shower. Most patients will wear the TENS unit for up to 10 hours a day per week. Once the pain diminishes, the use of the device usually can be decreased by hours per day per week.

The cost of the TENS device typically can range from the tens of US Dollars (USD) into the hundreds of USD. Insurance companies may pay for a TENS device, or pay a monthly rental fee during recommended treatment. The TENS device usually is not recommended for pregnant women and should not be used on the face.

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