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Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

Peer Reviewed

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation is also known as TENS or TNS. It is a passive, non-invasive, non-addictive modality with no known side effects. TENS works to decrease pain perception and may be used to control acute and chronic pain. It may also be used with other treatments, such as exercise.

What is TENS?
Transcutaneous (through the skin) electrical nerve stimulation sends a painless electrical current to specific nerves. The current may be delivered intermittently. The mild electrical current generates heat to relieve stiffness, improve mobility, and relieve pain. The treatment is believed to stimulate the body's production of endorphins or natural pain killers.

How is the treatment administered?
The physical therapist applies electrode patches to the skin in the area to be treated. The mild current runs from the stationary stimulator through these patches.

TENS is also used to deliver topical steroid medication through the skin to treat acute episodes of pain. This treatment is called Iontophoresis. The mild current causes the medication to migrate into soft tissue serving to reduce inflammation.

Is the equipment portable?
The portable stimulator is a small battery-operated device that can be worn around the waist. The unit can be turned on or off as needed for pain control.

Although these units can be purchased or rented, a prescription from a physician is required. The physical therapist is often the person to teach the patient how to use the device, including proper placement of the electrodes for optimal benefits.

To ensure the patient will benefit from TENS, the portable device is used on a trial basis before the patient takes it home for long-term use. Unfortunately, TENS is not always an effective treatment.

Who should not use TENS?
Patients with pacemakers should avoid TENS because the electrical current could interfere with the operation of a pacemaker.

Updated on: 04/07/14
Mary Rodts, DNP
While not effective for all spine patients, TENS therapy can be useful in select patients as part of an overall spine rehabilitation and management program.
Graeme Keys, PT, Dip MDT
Although this article is factual, my tendency would be to downplay the efficacy of TENS even more. In our best attempts to have patients take more responsibilty for their symptoms through active lifestyle, exercise, posture, etc, many still want to rely on TENS quite heavily.
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