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Tens Machine

TENS Machine

What’s The *buzz* Around Electrical Stimulation in the treatment of pain?

What is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation?

For most people, the words electrical stimulation create visions of being zapped by an electric fence when they were a child (and who would want to do that again?!). However, in reality, it isn’t like that at all. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (or TENS for short) is designed to help pain, especially persistent pain (has been present for more than 3 months). It comes in a compact machine, no bigger than the size of your palm, and has 2-4 sticky electrodes attached to it. The electrodes are placed on your body and the machine sends an electrical current between them.


How does it work?

 Firstly, it is important to understand how pain works. There are no such things as pain receptors or pain messages that travel to your brain. Pain is purely an output of the brain, when your body senses you are in danger. There are, however, receptors and messages that travel about nociception. Nociception is the detection of painful stimuli. It is the responsibility of nociceptors to detect extremes of heat, cold, mechanical and chemical signals (for example- acute tissue inflammation from an ankle sprain, a hot flame burning your skin or a joint being moved beyond its capability), and alert the body of potential dangers. The brain receives these messages and determines whether the stimulus is actually threatening to your body. If your brain determines that “yes, this could harm us!”, it sends back messages of pain. This is a very fast and efficient process that your body needs to protect you. However, sometimes your body can be working too efficiently and your “danger threshold” becomes lower and lower, leading to persistent pain in absence of the original threat.

The nerves that carry these nociceptive messages to the brain are, if you would believe it, the slowest ones in your body! This is where the TENS can be helpful. The machine sends an electrical current between the electrodes on your skin, which should feel like a strong, but comfortable, tingle. This sensation is transmitted to the brain by other nerve fibres, which transmit information much faster than the nociceptive nerves. These messages therefore reach the brain and are interpreted first, which reduces the volume of input from the nociceptive nerves = reduced pain output. Pretty cool, eh?


What sort of pain can it help with?

TENS can help with all different types of pain, from musculoskeletal pain such as persistent low back pain to conditions such as endometriosis and painful periods. You can also use a TENS machine during labour to help manage your contractions and delay the need for pain relief! TENS can often help people reduce their opioid medications (a type of prescription pain reliever) too.


How often can I use it?

Prescription of TENS varies, depending on the condition it is being prescribed for, as do the parameters of the TENS machine. Most people can use a TENS machine, but there are some instances where it is not appropriate. It is best to speak to your physiotherapist about what may be right for you.


If you are interested in whether or not TENS may be appropriate for you, please book in with one of our physiotherapists to have a chat.


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