TENS machines have grown in popularity over the last few years for people living with acute and chronic back pain.
Here’s the real question: do TENS machines actually work to alleviate back pain?
In this article, we take a look at the latest scientific and anecdotal research.
What Is A TENS Machine
A TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) machine is a therapy device that provides low levels of electric current to relieve joint and muscle pain.
The current feeds through connected wires between the machine and electrode pads which are placed on the skin covering the painful area.
TENS machines range in size and can be plug-in or battery-operated.
Although commonly used for back pain, TENs machines can also be used for a wide variety of muscle and joint pain located just about anywhere on the body.
How Do TENS Machines Work?
There are a few theories about how TENS machines work to combat pain.
If the pads are strategically placed across sensory nerve fibers, then the electrical pulse can block pain information that’s usually sent to the brain.
Another idea is that electrical impulses contract muscle tissue to improve circulation.
Lastly, a low voltage setting can release endorphins which counteract pain.
Is It Useful For Back Pain?
Although the use of TENS treatment dates back to the 1960’s, there is very little empirical evidence that TENS actually works for back pain.
Researchers first theorized that TENS treatment works under the gate-control theory. Electrical impulses travel along nerve fibers, closing a “gate” mechanism for pain in the spinal cord.
If this is true, then pain will stop during TENS treatment but immediately return after the treatment is finished.
Some studies compare the TENS treatment to a placebo effect. Results revealed conflicting evidence which supported the idea the TENS treatment may not work alone to alleviate back pain.
Treating Lower Back Pain With TENS
Although the research is limited, clinicians and patients still find TENS therapy to be quite useful in temporarily taking away gnawing back pain.
In order for therapy to work, you have to follow a set of guidelines for TENS set-up.
Locate painful areas
Palpate parts of the back (most likely with the help of another person) to locate the most painful sites. The larger the area of pain, the further apart your electrode pads will be placed.
Before placing the patches, make sure your skin is clean and dry so that the gel can adhere better.
Place two electrodes diagonally from each other on your back (it doesn’t matter which one sits higher) attached to the same wire.
Then place two other electrode pads diagonally on your back attached to the same wire. You should have four electrodes making up an “X”.
Turn device on
Securely connect the wires to the TENs unit and turn it on. Make sure you read the user manual for types of settings because each TENS unit is different in options and complexity.
Find a simple setting to start with such as “continuous” or “IFC/wave”.
Some TENS units have you select which part of the body you are treating. Slowly apply intensity from 0 to higher.
The electrodes should give off a mild tingling sensation. The setting is too high if your back is pulsating and contracting muscles vigorously.
TENS Units & Sciatica Pain
TENS units can treat sciatica pain. It just takes knowing about accurate pad placement.
If the pain starts further up, place the pads on your lower back near the sight of pain.
If the pain is radiating down your leg, place the pads along the back of your thigh. Play with the pad placements until you find that sweet spot.
FAQ’s About TENS Machines
Let’s talk about some basic information regarding TENS machines and appropriate times for usage, because let’s face it, TENS therapy will not fit everyone’s pain-related needs.
How often should you use a TENS machine for back pain?
Begin with only one 15-minute TENS therapy session and track your pain levels.
Some sources say that you can use TENS up to 5 times per day in 30 minute intervals, depending on the extent of your pain.
How long can you use a TENS unit?
Since many clinicians find TENS therapy to be generally safe for private use, you can use the TENS unit for as long as you think it is helping ease your pain.
Consult with your doctor if you have other health concerns that could negatively impact your TENS therapy schedule.
How long does TENS pain relief last?
Since the research is limited, and there is a wide variety of TENS units available, experts say that pain relief will usually last anywhere between 5 minutes and 18 hours after treatment.
Do TENS units relax muscles?
Yes. In conjunction with a light stretch routine, TENS units have the potential to help release muscle knots and tightness.
The electrode impulses help reduce muscle pain, which decreases someone’s guarding tendencies to allow for stretching and relaxing of muscle tissue.
Can a TENS unit help with arthritis and inflammation?
TENS units have been found helpful for pain associated with multiple forms of arthritis. Pads are placed above and below the joint(s) with the most pain in order to reduce inflammation.
Since arthritis varies from person to person (osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis), it is important to consult with a doctor before starting your own in-home TENs sessions.
Can a TENS machine help a slipped disc?
Although TENS units don’t cure or repair a slipped disc, TENS therapy can help reduce painful, affected sits of the body.
Choosing The Right TENS Unit
So, your doctor has given you approval to purchase your own TENS unit for home use. Here are 5 items you should consider before committing to a product.
What can you afford? On rare occasions, health insurance will cover a TENS unit with a prescriptive order from the doctor if the device is medically necessary for you.
Otherwise, you are on your own and have to consider what you can afford out-of-pocket.
Cheaper TENS units have less modes available, which means your options are limited for treating your specific type of pain.
Find a TENS unit with a wide variety of massage settings for different parts of your body so that you don’t feel trapped using the same, ineffective 1 or 2 modes available to you.
Everyone has different levels of pain tolerance, so you don’t want to be stuck with a TENS unit that is not intense enough for you.
Locate units that have a wide range of intensity, even if you think you won’t need it. That way, if you work up a tolerance for a certain level of intensity, you still have the option to kick it up a notch without buying a whole new unit.
Number of pads
Check the product to see how many pads and wire hook-ups come with the unit. TENS units that can use up to 4 pads at a time is a good start. Also, check to see if the unit comes with additional pads.
Do you want to stay home and relax or do you want to be on-the-go with your TENS unit?
Some are battery operated and are small enough for the purpose of portability. Choose the one that best fits within your daily activities.
Best TENS Machines For Back Pain
Since there are an overwhelming number of options available, we have recommended just three products to you start your research.
The Complex Edge has 4 programs for strength-building and recovery. The unit comes with batteries, a case, and 12 snap-on electrode pads. Overall, reviewers have given the Complex edge a 4.5 star review. It’s a little pricey, starting at $105 on Amazon.
This TENS unit is cheaper (about $65) and has 12 different programs for back, shoulders, neck, legs, arms, and ab muscles. It’s portable, comes with a 60-minute timer, and 20 intensity settings.
The Easy@Home comes with 20 power levels, 5 automated massage settings, and 3 traditional massage modes. The rechargeable battery lasts up to 120-minute sessions, 3 times per day. The company offers a 1-year warranty and the unit costs roughly $95 on Amazon.
Assess your daily pain, talk to your doctor, and start researching TENS units to see if this avenue of treatment is right for you.
Don’t rush yourself and be very thoughtful before dedicating yourself to one product.
TENS units are not meant to be a “fix-all” for pain, but the temporarily pain relief may be just what you need in order to get back to your day.