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TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) pain relief

Medical reviewer: Healthily's medical team
Last reviewed: 20/11/2020
Medically reviewed

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a type of pain relief that uses a mild electrical current to help ease painful conditions, including back pain, neck pain, sports injuries, arthritis and period pain.

It involves using a small, battery-operated machine to deliver small electrical pulses – that feel like tingles – into the body.

The machines have leads connected to reusable sticky plasters, called electrodes, that attach to your skin and deliver the electrical pulses. They can be used on most parts of the body.

How does a TENS machine work?

The electrical pulses released by the machine reduce pain signals or block them from reaching your spinal cord and brain. This means your brain receives fewer signals from the source of your pain, providing some pain relief.

It can help reduce or relieve pain or muscle spasms that are common in a wide range of painful conditions, such as arthritis and back pain. TENS is also sometimes used to relieve pain during childbirth.

The electrical current also encourages the body to release pain-relieving hormones called endorphins.

Does TENS work?

There’s not enough good quality research available to confirm that TENS is a reliable method of pain relief. But it’s a popular pain reliever and many health professionals say the machines have helped some of their patients with certain types of pain.

TENS is often used for patients who can’t or don’t want to take pain medication.

The amount of pain relief it produces and how long the relief lasts vary from person to person. But most people only feel the benefits while the machine is switched on.

If you're thinking about trying TENS, you’ll usually need to use it with other treatments and lifestyle changes, like painkillers, exercise and relaxation – it’s often not very effective on its own.

Should you try TENS?

Before trying a TENS machine, you should ask a doctor if it's safe for you to use.

It's also a good idea to try TENS to see if it works for you before you buy a machine. For example, a doctor may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist to try their TENS machine. Some online TENS companies may also offer a trial.

If you find that TENS works well for you, you can buy a TENS machine from most pharmacies. They range in price and vary in quality, so it’s worth doing some research into different brands first. The more expensive machines aren’t necessarily better than the cheaper ones.

How to use a TENS machine

A TENS machine can be used while you're working or on the move, as it’s small and lightweight. You can put it in your pocket, clip it to your belt or hold it in the palm of your hand.

Always read the manufacturer's instructions carefully before using a TENS machine.

Never place the electrodes over:

  • the front or side of your neck (where there’s a major artery)
  • your temples
  • your mouth or eyes
  • your heart
  • irritated or broken skin
  • varicose veins
  • numb areas

What are the risks and side effects of TENS?

If your doctor or physiotherapist has confirmed that TENS is OK for you to use, it’s a safe treatment that has few potential side effects.

Some people may notice their skin becomes red or irritated when they use TENS. This is often because of an allergy to the pad, which can be prevented by using special pads for people with allergies.

Certain people are also at greater risk of side-effects and should always get medical advice before trying a TENS machine. This includes people who:

  • have a pacemaker or other metal or electrical implant
  • are pregnant as it may not be suitable in early pregnancy (however, TENS machines are often used for pain relief during the early stages of childbirth)
  • have epilepsy or a heart problem

Key points:

  • TENS is a type of pain relief that uses mild electrical currents to ease pain
  • it’s used to treat a range of conditions such as back pain, arthritis, sports injuries and during childbirth
  • research hasn’t proven that TENS is good for pain relief, but many health professionals say the machines have helped their patients manage certain types of pain
  • you should speak to your doctor before using a TENS machine
  • certain people are at greater risk of side-effects from TENS

Additional references:

  1. Rull G. TENS Machine | How does a TENS machine work? [Internet]. Patient.info. 2020 [cited 15 November 2020]. Available here.
  2. TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 15 November 2020]. Available here.
  3. Pain relief in labour [Internet]. nhs.uk. 2020 [cited 15 November 2020]. Available here.
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Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.

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