What is TENS?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Transcutaneous means across the skin. TENS is also called electrotherapy.
A TENS machine passes electricity across the skin to stimulate your nerves and relieve your pain.
A TENS machine runs on batteries. You put small electrodes on your skin, and the electrodes are connected to the TENS machine. The machine sends pulses of gentle electric current to the electrodes. The current stimulates the nerves near your pain.
Some people find it gives some pain relief. It uses no medicines, no needles and no injections.
But it isn't clear how it works. It's possible that it blocks pain signals by stimulating different nerves in your spinal cord. TENS might also cause the release of endorphins - the body's natural pain relievers.
Medical uses for TENS
TENS can give pain relief in labour. It is also used for chronic pain in people who have conditions such as cancer or arthritis. Physiotherapists sometime use it to treat muscle pain. It's not recommended as a treatment for lower back pain.
Is TENS effective?
TENS helps ease pain for some people, but not for others.
Risks and safety
TENS is thought to be safe. But it should not be used:
- on an open wound
- if your skin is irritated
- near sensitive areas such as your eyes
- while driving or operating machinery
- in or around water.
It should not be used by:
- women who are pregnant but not in labour
- people with a pacemaker or a cochlear implant
- people with epilepsy.
TENS shouldn't be painful, but some people find it uncomfortable. Some people find skin irritation where the electrodes are attached.
How to get a TENS machine
You might be able to rent or borrow a TENS machine from a physiotherapist or a hospital.
You can buy your own, but you should ask a physiotherapist or health professional for advice on the settings that are best suited for your problem.
Last reviewed: May 2016