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How to Use a TENS Unit

by Derrick
doctor demonstrating how to use a TENS unit

If you experience chronic pain, have had surgery, or a sports injury that still causes you pain, you may have heard of a TENS unit as a possible way to alleviate the pain. Indeed, these devices can help, but you need to know how to use a TENS unit to get the maximum benefit from it.

Aging comes with an increase in bodily aches and pains, forcing many seniors to take ever increasing amounts of acetaminophen or ibuprofen to find some relief. Too much of either ends up causing their own set of problems, and – whenever possible – it’s better to find non-pharmaceutical ways to reduce pain.

I’ve written about where to place TENS unit pads before. Perhaps this article should have preceded it, but better late than never. TENS units are one way that older adults (and younger adults for that matter) can find pain relief without the need for painkillers.

Decades-old technology is now becoming more affordable than ever, and millions of patients who have tried it out swear by its effectiveness. Simple and reliable, TENS treatments have proven to be effective for many people who have tried them. I know it’s helped me, using my TENS unit for headaches and some muscle pains.

What is TENS?

TENS is a neuro-stimulating type of treatment that blocks pain and ensures that you can live a comfortable life with more mobility and less pain than most painkillers can assure. In its essence, this is an electrical treatment – it sends pulses of low electrical current through the injured or otherwise painful part of your body and ensures that these signals confuse the nerves and the brain into thinking there is no pain. As such, TENS shows can be used for:

  • Neck pain,
  • Sciatica,
  • Shoulder pain,
  • Foot pain,
  • Weight loss,
  • Plantar fasciitis,
  • Menstrual cramps,
  • Trapezius pain, and
  • Other types and locales of pain.

What is a TENS Unit?

The TENS treatment is delivered through a TENS unit. This is a small unit, the size of an average smartphone, that generates these electrical pulses that travel through the body and reduce the intensity of pain. Most patients who use the device say that both the severity and the frequency of pain are reduced – something that many people with chronic pain could not do with ordinary painkillers.

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The unit is small and portable, weighing less than a smartphone. It also comes with one or two pairs of electrodes that you are supposed to stick to your body and go about your daily life. While some prefer to take a rest and lay back while using the device, others use it while on their feet – to prolong the pain-free period and ensure a more comfortable daily life.

How to Use a TENS Unit

When using the TENS unit, you should beware that there are some rules on how to use it. These rules explain how often and how long you should use the device. They also explain where to place the electrodes or the self-adhesive pads for best results and the least chance of developing muscle fatigue.

A very important thing to take into consideration is the level of the current that you set the device to. While many devices are limited in strength of the current that they can deliver, that may still be too high for you, and you may experience pain and muscle contractions where the device is supposed to offer relief and a painless experience.

In general, you should experiment on your own and see what your comfort levels are. How effective and how good of results you will be able to see depends on several factors. Someone who is very lean (like myself) may experience the massaging effect even with a very low current. Someone who is on the plus side may need a much stronger current, as the current has to travel longer to reach the deeper tissues it is supposed to treat.

In any case, you should consult your physician if you feel unsure. The guide outlined here is for informative purposes only and you may want to speak with a doctor before starting treatment on your own. You should immediately stop the treatment if you experience pain, burning sensation, irritated muscles or nerves, and any other type of discomfort. You should never use the device if you have a pacemaker, insulin pump, or a similar device that your life and health may depend on.

How to Use TENS Unit for Neck Pain

Your TENS unit can be used to treat neck pain. To do so, place two electrodes on the painful side of the next, as low towards the back as you can. Do not place the electrodes on the front side of the neck. Avoid placing them close to the head as well. If your neck pain starts between the shoulder blades, this is also a place where you may place the electrodes.

How to Use TENS Unit for Sciatica

If you experience sciatica, you may use your TENS unit to relieve sciatica pain. Place the electrodes on the behind, one very close to the lower back and another one on the behind itself. You can also use two pairs of electrodes. In this case, make sure that the imaginary lines going between each pad in a pair intersect at the center of the pain.

How to Use TENS Unit for Shoulder Pain

There are three muscles that make up the shoulder: the frontal, the medial, and the back head. Identify the place of origin of the pain and place one electrode above that particular muscle. Place the other electrode on the lower side of the muscle. If the pain seems to go deeper, you can simply place electrodes on the opposing sides of the shoulder, irrelevant to the muscles, while avoiding the pit area, as it is quite sensitive.

How to Use TENS Unit for Feet / Plantar Fasciitis

If you experience pain in your feet, you may want to use your TENS device here as well. To do so, place pads on the opposite sides (! not the sole and the uppermost part of the foot) of the foot, so that the imaginary line goes through the center of the pain. Start your TENS device on a very low setting, as feet are very sensitive. Build up the current as you feel comfortable doing so.

How to Use TENS Unit for Menstrual Cramps

If you want to use a TENS unit for menstrual pains, you should place them on the back, not the stomach as the popular belief goes. Your TENS unit pads should be placed on the lower back, on both sides of the back, so that the opposing pads are found on the vertical axis of the back, rather than horizontally. Use a low setting and build up, especially if your back is ticklish or otherwise sensitive. Many recommend going for longer sessions on lower current settings.

How to Use TENS Unit for Trapezius Pain

Your TENS unit can also help deal with trapezius pain. This is the pain that occurs on the shoulder blade itself. As the muscle starts at the back side of the shoulder and ends quite close to the spinal column, these are the places where you should place the pads. Considering that this is a hard-to-reach area, you may need some assistance.

Where to Place a TENS Unit

Placing the TENS unit the right way is half the job done. As stated, I’ve written an entire article on this. In general, you can either choose to place the TENS pads at the beginning and the end of the muscle, if you experience a sore or painful muscle. Alternatively, you can also place the TENS device in such a way that the current arch goes through the center of the pain.

How Long to Use TENS Unit

You should use your TENS unit 2-3 times per day, 15-30 minutes per session. You should use it for as long as the pain is there, usually no longer than a few weeks. Although the TENS unit will make the pain go away within minutes, the pain may keep coming back for weeks to come. If this is the case, and the pain is there for longer than five to six weeks, you may want to consult your physician. They may order some tests to see where the pain comes from.

How to Care for Your TENS Unit

Your TENS unit pads should be cleaned after every use. After a while, they should also be switched out for a new pair. Besides this, your TENS battery should be recharged regularly and you should make sure to keep the unit out of reach of children.

It’s smart to have plenty of extra replacement pads available for your TENS unit, because regardless of how frequently you clean them, they will inevitably lose their stickiness.

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Another thing to do is to keep the connectors (the pins where the pads attach) clean and dry at all times. As this is an electronic device, even a small amount of water can damage it beyond repair. As this is a simple device, your TENS unit needs no special care besides this.

Final Remarks

TENS technology and treatments have been around for several decades. However, it is only in recent years that the technology has drawn the attention of so many physicians and family doctors, as research has shown that technology is safe to use and offers promising results. If you would like to try treating your pain with a TENS unit, make sure you first consult your doctor and see how safe and effective the procedure would be for you.

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