Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) uses low-voltage electrical currents to relieve pain. A TENS unit is a small device that delivers the current at or near your nerves to block or change your perception of pain. Healthcare providers use TENS to treat a range of conditions, including osteoarthritis, tendinitis and fibromyalgia.
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a type of pain relief therapy. It uses a low-voltage electrical current to block pain or change your perception of it.
TENS therapy works well for a lot of people. And researchers agree that it tends to work better for some than others. But there’s not enough research to explain exactly why. Researchers are still working to find out more information. Most experts believe the electrical current helps release pain-reducing chemicals that your own body produces.
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A TENS unit is a battery-powered device with electrodes that deliver electrical impulses through the surface of your skin. A provider places the electrodes at or near trigger points (muscle knots) or affected nerves.
Many healthcare providers offer TENS therapy in office or hospital settings. They can also give you a prescription for a TENS unit to use at home. Or you can purchase an over-the-counter (OTC) TENS unit at your local pharmacy without a prescription.
Regardless of the type of TENS unit you choose, it’s a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider first. Many of these units have FDA approval, but it’s important to choose the right device for your needs. Your provider can also give you guidance on how and where to apply the electrodes.
Healthcare providers use transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) to treat a wide range of acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) conditions, including:
Healthcare providers have two theories about how TENS works:
A TENS device is about the size of a small cell phone. It comes with several sets of electrodes, wires and end pads. Here’s how it works:
TENS therapy usually helps ease pain during the treatment. But the level of pain relief following the session varies from person to person. Some people claim that they feel better for up to 24 hours after the session. Others say their pain returns as soon as they turn off the TENS unit.
Generally, you can use a TENS unit as often as you want. Some people use it several times a day for up to 60 minutes each time. But it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare provider before trying it.
You shouldn’t use a TENS unit if you’re pregnant or if you have:
You also shouldn’t use TENS on or near:
Always check with your healthcare provider before using TENS, especially if you have existing health conditions.
Listed below are some notable TENS unit benefits:
Possible TENS side effects include:
Most people report that pain relief begins immediately after beginning the session and stops within one hour of completing it.
We need more research to fully understand TENS and find out exactly how it works. Some existing studies show that TENS relieves pain in many people. Others suggest that a placebo (a treatment that appears real but isn’t) works just as well. It’s likely that success depends on several factors, including the existence of underlying conditions, placement of the electrodes and TENS unit settings.
In most cases, using a TENS unit shouldn’t cause any serious health issues. But it’s important to check with your healthcare provider before you try it. Together, you and your provider can find a solution that works for your unique situation.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a noninvasive method of pain relief, and it works well for many people. As far as scientific research, there’s still a lot to learn about it. But if you have short-term or long-term pain, it’s likely worth a try. To learn more about TENS for pain management, talk to your healthcare provider.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 09/25/2023.
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