Published On: Wed, Aug 5th, 2015

The Medical Technology Behind TENS Units

In electrotherapy, with the help of different devices, electrical stimulation can be used on both muscles and nerves with different outcomes, namely some devices target pain, while others stimulate muscles.

As far as blocking pain is concerned, TENS units are a type of device that generates low voltage electric currents which two to four electrodes then carry through the skin to stimulate nerves; a special gel is usually applied between the skin and the electrodes to ensure the current reaches the skin more easily.

TENS units and pain

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and is used for non-invasive therapeutic purposes through the electrodes that are attached to the skin. The device runs on batteries, and can be used alone or as a complement to drug therapy. Relief lasts for varying lengths of time, and if the unit is used correctly, there are no side effects, which means that the patient can benefit from this type of pain management over long periods of time.

The device is used to treat pain caused by injury, surgery, and more recently, migraines, though it can be helpful in lowering or blocking pain of the back and neck, the pain experienced in tendinitis, carpel tunnel syndrome, as well as symptoms associated with conditions of the nervous system, such as epilepsy; however, such a device should be used only following the doctor’s recommendation.

There are several approaches to managing pain, each with its own level of effectiveness, and TENS units have been proven to work in some clinical studies for some patients. Consequently, the doctor will initiate a therapeutic trial of one month to test the efficacy of the device on each patient.

photo Yeza via wikimedia commons

photo Yeza via wikimedia commons

TENS units can also be used to prevent pain, not just block it, even though the exact mechanisms of pain management through electrotherapy are not fully understood yet. The device works two ways to help you feel less pain: it can lower acute and chronic pain alike by inhibiting the transmission of pain signals from the nerves to the brain, especially when higher levels of stimulation are used, while at the same time, the electrical stimulation results in the production of endorphins that aid the body in the further reduction of pain.

Together with your doctor, you will decide on the best way to approach pain, by opting for the electrical stimulation to be released either continuously or in bursts, and by adjusting the pulse width (30 – 300 uS) and rate (1 – 150 Hz). The strength, or pulse intensity, can also be adjusted, the maximum level being 80mA or 100mA, depending on the type of TENS unit.

The device can be obtained on prescription to be used at home, as long as you follow your doctor’s instructions carefully. The device is very portable and can be worn by the patient, usually at the pain site; for example, it can be worn on a belt around the waistline to treat back pain. However, there are several body parts (like the eyes, spinal column, over wounds or tumors) that are best avoided since electrical currents over those areas can cause more damage.

Guest Author: Arya Mullen

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