Tackling Pain with TENS

tackling-pain-tensWhat is TENS?

TENS therapy (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) is a way to manage a loved one’s pain as an alternative to medication. Essentially, TENS is the use of mild electrical pulses to simulate nerves and block pain signals before the brain receives them. It is commonly used to relieve arthritis as well as back pain. Self-adhesive electrodes are placed on the skin at the painful area, and the machine (a small electronic device) delivers the current through those electrodes. It’s simple and easy to use, providing a loved one quick pain relief.

Controlling the TENS Unit

TENS is a therapy that can be used at home on a long-term basis.  The user controls the strength and the width of the interval of the pulse to achieve the desired result from the TENS unit.  If your loved one feels no tingling, the signal may be too weak; but if their muscles start to twitch, it can signal a too strong or fast frequency and should be adjusted.

TENS units can range in size and power output. They are available from small, battery-powered units to handheld or even desktop options. Wearable models are available as well. A caregiver can help ensure the TENS unit chosen is practical for the person who will use it.

Caregivers should be aware that a TENS machine is not to be used for undiagnosed pain or on someone using a pacemaker. A pacemaker may be interrupted by a TENS machine, causing a heart to stutter, skip or even stop. Those with heart disease or epilepsy must consult their physician before using a TENS machine. Electrical pulses may trigger dangerous seizures. It also should not be placed on the head, or front and sides of the neck.

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Who Benefits from TENS?

While using TENS can be a very safe, effective way to relieve pain, your loved one’s physician should always supervise their use. Also be sure a professional has demonstrated the proper use of the unit before using it at home. Always ask any questions if something is unclear to you about its use.  Common conditions in which TENS is used include: post-operative pain, MS, cancer, arthritis and fibromyalgia.

While the results vary by individual, for many, the reduction or elimination of pain lasts three to four times longer than the actual treatment period. A new user may be nervous about TENS therapy, but it is a natural pain relief option. The sensation from the TENS machine is reported to be relaxing, not painful. The current used is very low. If it becomes too high, the setting is easily adjusted. A caregiver can help their loved one adjust the unit to a comfortable setting. TENS therapy is a safe option that has provided many people with relief from pain, without the need for prescription drugs.


Today’s Caregiver magazine (caregiver.com), launched in 1995, is the first national magazine for all family and professional caregivers. Each issue includes articles on vital caregiving issues and caregiving resources. Cover interviews include Debbie Reynolds, Dixie Carter, Valerie Harper, Della Reese and Clay Aiken, among many others. © Caregiver.com, Inc.