Do TENS units work for back pain?

back pain

TENS units do work for back pain by a offering a non-invasive, pain- and side effect-free discharge of electrical current with a two-fold purpose; to block pain signals from being sent by the nerves and reach the brain, and to release the body’s natural opioids known as endorphins. The electrical impulses are delivered by a 9 volt battery-powered portable machine such as a TENS 7000. In order to provide relief for back pain, electrode pads connected to the device by means of lead wires are attached to the area where pain is located.

Generally speaking, the electrodes should be arranged in a square formation on or around the painful area. The electrode pads should not sit directly on top of the spine; thus, check that the tissue under the electrodes is soft and springy before attaching them. Some electrodes are self-adherent, while others may require a gel – which also augments conductivity – or any other type or adhesive, for instance medical tape, to keep them in place. Keep in mind that electrode placement is not an exact science; as such, you might have to try different patterns before achieving the desired results of back pain relief.

Improper electrode placement is not the only reason that TENS units may not yield the expected results. Too high or too low an intensity may also cause more harm than good. However, in these cases the fault lies not with the device but with how it is being used. To avoid problems, follow your doctor’s instructions and don’t make any changes before consulting them. For example, if you do not feel even the tingling sensation characteristic of TENS therapy, that may mean the intensity is too weak and you should ask your physician whether you should turn it higher. Conversely, if the electrical current is uncomfortable, that may mean the intensity is too strong; in that case stop treatment and ask your doctor whether you should turn it lower.

In addition to helping establish electrode placement and the intensity of treatment, your doctor or physical therapist should also work closely with you to determine the frequency and length of treatment. Most cases of back pain improve in a matter of weeks, though a few may last longer.

Back pain



·         Muscle ache

·         Shooting or stabbing pain

·         Pain radiating down to the leg

·         Limited flexibility or range-of-motion

·         Being unable to stand up straight

·         Muscle or ligament strain

·         Bulging or ruptured disks

·         Arthritis

·         Skeletal anomalies

·         Osteoporosis


It is important to note that while TENS units can relieve the pain causes by symptoms of back pain, they do not treat the causes. This is one of many similarities between TENS therapy and pain relieving drugs, another one being the possibility of misuse as hinted above. The main difference, however – also previously mentioned – is that electrotherapy has no side effects other than potential skin irritation from allergy to conductive gel or the electrodes’ material, or burns due to prolonged use. Once again, following your doctor’s and the manual’s instructions ensures safe and effective use of these devices.