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What is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation?

By Sandra Koehler
Updated May 17, 2024
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Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, commonly referred to as TENS, is a form of electronic muscle therapy utilized for pain relief. Considered an electroanalgesic, this device utilizes a low voltage electrical charge to stimulate nerve endings and alleviate pain symptoms from a variety of injuries or structural problems.

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation unit can be used in physical therapy for injury rehabilitation, or in the home for the relief of pain issues, both acute and chronic in nature. Acute pain consists of symptoms that come on suddenly and only last a short time. Chronic pain means that symptoms last several months or more. A personal TENS unit can provide long-term pain management without the side effects of medications.

Indications for the use of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation include muscle, bursa, tendon or ligament injuries or inflammation. The bursa is the cushioning sac around internal structures, whereas tendons attach bones to muscles and ligaments connect bones to bones. Structural changes from arthritis and conditions such as fibromyalgia, a form of widespread chronic pain, or pain from cancer often respond well to this noninvasive form of pain management. However, certain undiagnosed pain conditions or other physical impairments, such as those seen by those individuals requiring a pacemaker, should not use TENS for pain control. It is advisable to consult with a physician before attempting TENS treatment.

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation requires the use of a small, battery-operated device with electrode connections covered in a conducting gel to be placed in or around the area of pain and discomfort. The settings of frequency and pulse width of the impulse are set by a physical therapist or physician. When the unit is turned on, the adjustable controls allow you to set the intensity of the electrical impulses to tolerance. These electrical impulses travel to the nerve endings and scramble pain signals, which can decrease the amount of perceived pain.

Stimulation to the area of discomfort is also thought to increase the amount of endorphins produced. Similar to analgesics, endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers. An increase in endorphins to the area of pain can result in the blockage of pain signals.

This form of electronic muscle stimulation can produce sensations ranging from a tingling sensation to mild prickling. A variation on the TENS is called the PENS. PENS, or percutaneous electrical nerve stimulation utilizes small, acupuncture needles to deliver the electric stimulation. Though this method can be slightly more uncomfortable, it may provide longer lasting relief.

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