If you have pain in your muscles and bones much of the time, you may have been prescribed a TENS unit. A TENS unit is also prescribed to those who have recently had surgery and the doctor expects that the pain level will be high.
But what about using TENS units for headaches? Do they work?
A study published by the Journal of Headache and Pain found a “significant reduction of monthly headache days” by patients that used TENS units as compared to the control group that did not. They looked at 161 patients who used TENS units to treat their migraines and 115 who did not. Responder rate and satisfaction increased significantly in the groups using a TENS unit to treat their headaches.
I have not quite reached old age myself, but I’ve had my fair share of migraines! I have found the TENS unit to help ease the pain of some headaches, but I have found it depends on the nature of the headache, where it’s located, how long I’ve had it, and what’s causing it.
Seniors generally have fewer headaches than younger adults, but the majority of senior women and a big portion of men still suffer from headache pain.
This article will discuss a non-invasive type of proven pain reduction method that has helped millions of people reduce their pain and improve their quality of life with a particular focus on using TENS for headaches.
What is TENS?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. Transcutaneous means the signal is crossing the surface of the skin and traveling on the nerve to wherever the nerve goes. The signal is electrical and it stimulates the nerve.
The pain you feel in your body is a sensation that is carried by nerves. If the nerves were not stimulated, you would not necessarily feel the pain. Of course, if a nerve is cut completely, the pain sensation is completely cut off and there is no feeling at all. Nerves that are stimulated may give you feelings of pain, hot or cold sensations, and numbness.
What is a TENS Unit?
A TENS unit is a battery-powered device about the size of a cell phone. Most at-home unites are battery-powered and come with two electrodes that are adhered to the skin where the pain is. The electrodes are attached to wires which then connect to the device. The device delivers pulses of electrical energy that are adjusted for intensity, frequency, duration, and type.
There’s an on and off switch and you can turn adjust the intensity of the pulse. The electrical signal is sent into the electrodes. You’ll feel them cause a tingling sensation. Most people find it to be a comfortable feeling. Some people say it’s relaxing. However, turned too high, the electrical impulses can cause muscles to contract.
The TENS unit gives you relief of pain, depending on the cause. The unit is working on the nerves and should not be causing muscle contraction. It massages the muscles instead of contracting them. TENS units are a great alternative to taking pain medication.
The unit is sending electrical signals back to the brain and cancels out the pain sensation. It will help a little with inflammation but that isn’t the main function of it.
There may be one or two electrodes per channel. You would use one for small areas of the body and two for larger areas. The placement of the electrodes should hit the spot of the pain in the center. Check with the instruction manual for this aspect of the device.
How to Use TENS Units for Headaches
Look at your unit’s instruction manual to know precisely how to use your device, but they all function the same. Plug the wires into the unit, adhere the sticky pads to your pain areas, turn the unit on, and find the settings that suit your needs.
The settings are for comfort levels. Some are faster than others. It’s up to you which settings you like the best. You really don’t want to bring up the level to the point of muscle contraction, because this will fatigue the muscle.
Note where your pain points are. Some headaches may be isolated to one side of your body. Tensions headaches are caused by a tense upper back and neck. TENS units may not help all headaches. They probably won’t do much for sinus pain, a known cause of headaches.
Apply the electrodes to your upper back or neck. Adjust intensity as needed. Do not turn it up too high as this will increase discomfort. Experiment with different durations to find what works. Start soft and slow.
The unit may have different sized electrodes. If yours has different sizes (mine does not), use the smaller ones for the temple region. Use the larger electrodes for neck and back areas.
If your headache is isolated to one side of your body, targeting just that side may be sufficient. Do NOT place a TENS unit pad on your temples or face.
3 Quality TENS Units on the Market
There are many varieties of TENS units on the market. Below are a few that have solid customer reviews, offer enough features to meet anyone’s needs, and are reasonably priced.
Xpoint Dual Channel Luxury TENS EMS Unit Muscle Stimulator
The Xpoint TENS unit has nearly 6,000 customer ratings with an average of 4.5 stars. It’s safe to say customer are finding this product to be helpful and of good quality. It has 20 different levels of intensity, 24 different massage modes, and can be used on a single charge for up 30 hours.
- ✅ POWERFUL PAIN RELIEF SUPPORT – Our premium muscle massager has a time control feature and utilizes bioelectric and electromagnetic tech to help provide quick relief from muscle aches, joint pains, and tension. Fully charge the Xpoint before its first use to get maximum power
- ✅ LUXURIOUS DESIGN - Our TENS EMS unit sets itself apart from other products with its luxurious black-and-gold finish. Made of high quality materials and includes Leather Dust-Proof Drawstring Storage Bag, our muscle massager is built to last many years.
What sets this device apart from the others is in the design. It has an attractive finish, it’s well-constructed, and it includes a leather drawstring storage bag. If you need a unique gift idea for a senior suffering from migraines, this could be it.
The downside to this unit is that it may be overkill for a senior who struggles figuring out how to use electronic devices. There are so many options and settings that it could overcomplicate an otherwise simple task.
TENS 7000 Digital TENS Unit with Accessories
The TENS 7000 is THE TENS unit that others are measured by.
The Xpoint may have had a high number of positive customer reviews, but the TENS 7000 puts it to shame with its 70,000+ customer ratings with an average score of 4.5 stars. The manufacturer claims that this is the “preferred device of physical therapists and physicians for pain relief.” Whether that’s fact or not, I don’t know.
- NEED PRESCRIPTION STRENGTH PAIN RELIEF? A TENS unit muscle stimulator and electric massager that provides pain relief, acts as a muscle massager or shoulder massager, provides carpal tunnel relief, and acts as a muscle relaxer(great for muscle recovery)
- OVER 1M TENS 7000 DEVICES SOLD: A consumer over the counter favorite back pain relief device and a leader in physical therapy equipment for providing immediate and lasting drug-free muscle pain relief from back pain, neck pain, tennis elbow, and bursitis
Construction is solid. I like the dial settings on the top of this unit (seniors might as well). The hard storage case is a nice addition.
Auvon Dual Channel TENS EMS Unit 24 Modes Muscle Stimulator for Pain Relief
Auvon sells another nice, competing model and also boasts a respectable 5,000+ ratings with an average of 4.5 stars. It has 24 modes and offers 10 hours of usage on a single charge.
- TENS + EMS Combination Unit. AUVON TENS & PMS / EMS device combines 2 therapies in 1 device, in which TENS provides safe, non-invasive, drug-free methods of pain relief used by doctors and physical therapists for years. PMS / EMS brings elicitation of muscle contraction using electrical impulses and activates the muscles to assist in the increase of strength and endurance as a rehab and strength training tool.
- Independent Dual Channel. You can choose different modes and intensities for channel A and channel B. For example, you could choose P1 mode in channel A with an intensity level of 3 for your shoulder. While in channel B, the P5 mode is being run with stronger intensity set to the level of 9 on your back as a back electric stimulator.
Once you’ve used a TENS unit long enough you’ll find that the sticky pad suddenly isn’t so sticky anymore. Dust and hair will collect on it and general use will diminish its adherence. This is precisely why they sell replacement pads for TENS units.
Buy some in advance (you’ll need them). They are universally accepted with all at-home TENS units.
- UNIVERSAL COMPATIBILITY - Our TENS model pads are designed to fit your muscle stimulation machine with pigtail snap connectors sized 1.8 - 2.5mm.
- REUSABLE - This bulk pack of TENS electrodes can be used multiple times for optimal relief from discomfort. Simply use the resealable package to keep your pads fresh and clean.
Other Natural Remedies for Headaches
If you want to avoid taking ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or other drugs for headache relief, the TENS unit can help. So can these other options. Try them in conjunction with a TENS unit. One (or a few of them) might just work!
Drink Water – Many headaches are caused by dehydration. A TENS unit won’t fix that. Water will.
Take Magnesium – Magnesium deficiency is a known cause of migraines. Increasing your intake might help. Note: Magnesium will make you need to use the bathroom (an added pro or con depending on what you need).
Get Enough Sleep – A solid night’s rest can become a challenge as we grow older, and inadequate sleep can lead to headaches. Examine some ways to improve your sleep.
Get Caffeinated – Have you had your morning coffee? Caffeine withdrawal can lead to headaches.
There are other natural methods for headache relief.
See what works for you! If you found a strategy that might help others, let us know in the comments.