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Electrical nerve stimulation history
For several thousand years, people have recognized that electrical stimulation can have an impact on pain. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, is said to have used electric fish to cause numbness, and a report of gout being “cured” by accidental contact with a fish called an electric ray dates back to the first century. Later reports also described pain resolution that occurred when similar types of “electric” fish were placed on afflicted body parts.
It wasn't until the 18th century when a more formal device to deliver electricity to decrease pain was created. Although initially developed in Europe, Benjamin Franklin is credited with reforming the original electric condenser, which was used to shock patients in an effort to treat various ailments.
What is a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit?
Today, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation units, or TENS units, are commonly used to treat many types of pain, including chronic back and neck pain. Unlike the early devices, where the amount of electricity delivered might vary, TENS units supply a controlled electrical current to stimulate nerve endings through surface electrodes, which are placed over the affected region.
Quick GuideChronic Pain Syndrome: Treatment and Management for CPS
How does transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation work?
The rationale for using a TENS unit for pain control is based on the inability of the spinal cord and peripheral nerves to multi-task -- that is, impulses that are being carried along a pathway within the nervous system effectively block that pathway from transmitting other signals. In essence, flooding a pathway with low-level stimulation keeps pain signals from reaching the brain.
TENS units are reported to work rapidly, although it can take some adjustment to find the correct level of stimulation. Additionally, TENS units are portable, which can improve the mobility of a patient experiencing chronic pain. However, not all types of pain respond to this method of treatment and any effect tends to be short-lived; pain quickly recurs once the stimulator is removed.
Who is a good candidate for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation?
Although this therapy isn't for everyone, individuals looking for a relatively inexpensive, well-tolerated treatment option with few side effects may find a TENS unit a good option to explore.
Pain Management Resources
Macdonald, Alexander J. R. "A brief review of the history of electrotherapy and its union with acupuncture." Acupuncture in Medicine 11 (1993): 66-75.
Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation - Side Effects
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Top Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Related Articles
Chronic PainChronic pain is pain (an unpleasant sense of discomfort) that persists or progresses over a long period of time. In contrast to acute pain that arises suddenly in response to a specific injury and is usually treatable, chronic pain persists over time and is often resistant to medical treatments.
Low Back PainThere are many causes of back pain. Pain in the low back can relate to the bony lumbar spine, discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
Neck PainNeck pain (cervical pain) may be caused by any number of disorders and diseases. Tenderness is another symptom of neck pain. Though treatment for neck pain really depends upon the cause, treatment typically may involve heat/ice application, traction, physical therapy, cortisone injection, topical anesthetic creams, and muscle relaxants.
Occipital neuralgia is a type of headache that involves inflammation or irritation of occipital nerves. Signs and symptoms include a stabbing and throbbing head pain, and an aching pain in the upper back of the head and neck.
Potential causes include infection, irritation, or trauma of the occipital nerves. This type of headache is diagnosed by physical examination findings and imaging tests. Treatment involves a multidisciplinary approach that includes massage, rest, physical therapy, heat, muscle relaxants, and anti-inflammatory drugs. Invasive procedures and even surgery may be considered if first-line treatments fail to bring relief from the chronic pain of this type of headache.
Postherpetic NeuralgiaPostherpetic neuralgia (PHN) is a painful complication of shingles. Symptoms include severe pain, itchy skin, and possible weakness or paralysis of the area. There is no treatment for postherapetic neuralgia that is effective for all patients.