To give it its full, and rather grand, title TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. Sounds fancy doesn’t it? It could also be described, rather inaccurately, as a form of electric shock treatment! Scientists have never been particularly good at leaving the high voltage stuff alone, but over the years they have managed to tone down their experiments with it, to a large extent. Today, for medicinal purposes, electricity is normally prescribed in small doses. It also works rather well; sort of!
Electric Treatment without the Shocks
TENS machines use an electrical current passed through the skin to reduce the sensation and symptoms of pain. The current is very light and the feeling is normally considered to be nothing more than a light tingle – often experienced as a pleasant, rather than unpleasant sensation. In theory this produces at least two physical effects in the body. The first is the disruption of the impulses sent along the spinal cord to the brain’s pain centres. This disruption stops the brain processing the signals and means that the user no longer experiences the physical pain. Secondly the electrical impulses have been found to stimulate endorphins, a hormone that also suppresses activity in the pain centres in the brain. The combined effect simply relieves pain in a mild, non-invasive and non-medicinal way. Most people can uses TENS but there are certain conditions in which it is not suitable and it’s strongly recommended that you speak to your GP before considering TENS machines to treat pain.
There is one slight problem with the science behind TENS machines. It seems that the treatment doesn’t work for everybody. In some individuals it works well, in other it works some of the time for some conditions and in others it appears to not work at all. Clinical studies have not been able to come up with conclusive results to explain either how TENS works, or why it works for some but not others. Despite this, TENS machines are generally recognised by medical authorities as having some (often considerable) benefits for a range of pain related conditions. The NHS currently advise that as long as your doctor has said it is safe, TENS machines can be effective in reducing and relieving the symptoms of back pain, sports injuries, period pain, arthritis and other musculoskeletal conditions. The NHS recommends using TENS therapy in combination with lifestyle changes (the usual; more exercise, losing weight and taking care to sit and lift correctly).
How Do I Know if TENS machines are for me?
Unfortunately, you won’t find out until you try this particular treatment, if it works for you. Many clinics use TENS machines and trying one out in a clinical setting is a sensible way to find out if the effects work. Some people find that they work instantly while others find that the effects take a little longer to appear. In some individual cases the effects are limited, but work to some extent, while others find that there is little positive effect. However, if TENS therapy works for you it can provide a simple solution to pain management. Most long term pain treatment solutions are either dangerous (painkillers should not normally be used long term) or expensive (physiotherapy is not cheap). TENS machines can be bought for as little as £15 and range up to around the £150 mark. This makes it possible to try a low cost version to evaluate if it will work for you. For many who find TENS an effective pain control therapy – particularly for back or period pain – the small outlay on a trial system is well worth it and they do go on to benefit from more expensive systems. As a final solution to repeated or long term pain, TENS machines can be just what many people have been searching for.
While TENS machines do not work for everyone they can provide a permanent, long term solution to chronic pain conditions for many people. For short term or recurring bouts of pain (muscle damage or period pain) they have a recognised track record for relief without side effects or potentially harmful medication.