I love my TENS machine. It's one of my front line weapons for my back pain relief. Millions of Americans suffer from back pain on a regular basis. Women, in particular, are prone to back pain, with nearly 30 percent of them experiencing lower back pain each year.
If you struggle with lower back pain, you've probably tried a lot of different pain relief methods. One technique you may not have tried before is a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit.
If you've never used a TENS unit, read on. I'll tell you what it is, how it treats pain, and how to use TENS to treat back pain.
What is a TENS Unit?
A TENS unit is a special device that can be used for at-home pain management. TENS units are comprised of a small battery pack and several sticky electrodes.
When these electrodes are placed on the skin and the TENS unit is turned on, it delivers a small current to the skin and tissues that lie beneath it. This electrical current stimulates the nerve endings to help minimize pain and pain perception.
They range from small portable units that cost about $20, to professional grade machines that cost hundreds of dollars. I'm not talking about the expensive ones hospitals use, the TENS machines I refer to are ones you can use at home. I have both types (and tend to use my small portable TENS unit the most).
How Does a TENS Unit Work?
Researchers believe that TENS units effectively treat chronic pain - especially chronic back pain - by disrupting the pain cycle.
Essentially, the TENS unit delivers a non-painful sensation to the skin and tissues surrounding the pain site. This pain-free sensation changes the way a person processes painful sensations in the same area.
If the frequency from the TENS unit is strong enough, the electrical stimulation can trigger the release of chemicals known as endorphins, too. Endorphins are hormones that act as natural painkillers. They can also improve your mood and promote a general sense of well-being.
Who Should Use a TENS Unit?
A TENS unit can be a very useful pain management tool, I truly love mine, it works very well for me. That doesn't mean it's appropriate for everyone. The following people should avoid using a TENS unit to treat their back pain:
*Those who have a cardiac pacemaker or defibrillator
*Those who have a spinal cord stimulator
*Those who have any kind of implanted electronic or metallic device
If you have one of the following conditions you may be able to use a TENS unit safely. You should talk to your doctor first to rule out any risks:
*Women who are pregnant should definitely talk to their doctor before they try using a TENS unit to treat their back pain.
How to Use a TENS Unit for Pain Relief
If you want to try using a TENS unit to relieve your back pain, start by making sure the skin on your back is clean and dry. This allows the patches to make firm contact. If they're not secure, you may experience discomfort and changes in nerve stimulation.
Once your skin is prepped, follow these instructions to set the unit up and start using it for pain relief:
Prepare the Device
First read the instruction booklet. Seriously. Different machines have different settings and you want to get the most out of yours. That said...start by making sure your unit is turned off. Then, place the batteries in the unit, or charge it, depending on the specific type of unit you have.
Remove the patches from their storage bag and attach the lead wires to the connector located on each patch. Check to make sure there aren't any bare metal pins showing.
Insert the lead wire plugs into the socket located at the top of the TENS unit.
Remove the plastic liners from the patches and set them aside.
Place the Patches on Your Skin
Now, it's time to place the patches on the skin. I highly recommend getting the electrode gel. It's cheap and it increases the effectiveness of the electrodes. It goes directly onto each patch (as a thin coating). Most people experience the greatest amount of relief when they arrange the patches in the center of their lower back -- making sure they don't touch the spine.
The patches shouldn't touch each other. They also shouldn't touch any metal objects, like belt buckles or jewelry.
Begin the Treatment
Once the patches are positioned properly, turn the unit on and adjust the settings to your preferred level. If you're using the unit for the first time, it's best to start on a low setting and gradually adjust it. It's not meant to be a torture device. If you crank it up thinking you're going to dive right in and eliminate your pain, you are in for a shock (a pretty big one!).
Remember, after a few minutes, you'll likely experience lessened stimulation since your body is getting used to the device. Once the stimulation starts to lessen, you can turn the unit up to get a stronger sensation.
You can use a TENS device for anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. You can also use it multiple times during the day. I use mine when I go out and I know I'm going to be walking around, or when I'm doing housework like vacuuming or laundry. It doesn't take much for my lower back to go from tolerable to feeling like I'm being stabbed so I wear it to avoid that happening.
Ending the Treatment
When you've finished your treatment, turn off the tens unit. Then, take the lead wires out of each of the patches. Remember, don't pull on the wires - this could damage the electrodes.
Take the patches off your skin and place them back on their plastic liners. Place the patches in their plastic storage back. Be sure to store them in a cool, dry place until you need them again.
Staying Safe While Using a TENS Unit
A TENS unit is, generally speaking, a very safe pain-relief device. But, accidents can still happen.
Keep these guidelines in mind to avoid hurting yourself while using the TENS unit:
*Don't place the electrodes on irritated or broken skin
*Don't drive while using the unit
*Don't use the unit in the shower or bathtub
*Don't use the unit while also using an ice pack or heating pad
*Don't use the unit while sleeping
*If you notice a rash or burn starting to develop underneath the electrodes, remove them immediately. Don't use the unit again until you talk to your doctor or physical therapist.
Want to Learn More Pain Management Techniques?
If you've tried other back pain relief methods and haven't found relief, a TENS unit might be the right option for you. It's especially helpful if you need relief but also want to avoid invasive and/or prescription intervention measures.
Looking for more steps you can take to manage your back pain? Check out the other pain relief strategies I use to get me through each day. I don't use all of them every day, but I do use multipe ones daily. I keep an arsenal of pain relief weapons ready to use because for me, the war with pain doesn't end.