Back pain can slow you down and keep you from things you enjoy. In extreme circumstances, it can even prevent you from living a normal life.
There are a variety of pills, ointments, and other treatments for lower back pain that you may have tried with limited success, or you may just want to try something new. Either way, a TENS unit is an effective treatment for lower back pain that can be purchased from many major retailers.
In this post, we'll tell you everything you need to know about what these machines are, how they work, and how you can use them to treat your lower back pain.
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TENS is an acronym for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. A TENS unit uses electrical impulses to stimulate the nerves through the skin.
The unit itself is a small battery-operated electrical device made up of a pair of pads that connect to the main body of the device with wires. When placed on the area of the body that's causing discomfort, these pads will send electrical impulses to the affected nerves.
The electrical impulses are low-current and harmless, but they do disrupt the way the nerves in the body send pain signals to the brain, helping provide relief from the aches and pains in your lower back.
TENS units can be operated at low to high frequencies and at varying intensities. Sensory intensity is when the effect is strong enough to feel a strong but comfortable sensation that doesn't stimulate muscle contraction. Motor intensity is when that effect is strong enough to produce a contraction in the muscle but not strong enough to cause pain.
A study published¹ by the National Institutes of Health found that different frequencies activate different opioid receptors in the spinal cord and brainstem. Activation of these opioid receptors plays a role in how the machines reduce pain. However, at the spinal level, the device has been shown to increase the concentration of an inhibitory neurotransmitter known as GABA. Inhibitory neurotransmitters block the impulses between nerve cells, helping to reduce pain.
Using a TENS unit is simple, though you should read the instruction manual for any device you'll be attaching to your body. In general, people use a TENS machine for 10-30 minutes, a few times a week. For most, this is enough to manage their back pain, but you'll likely have to experiment with settings and timing to see what works best for you.
The steps below describe the basic process of using a TENS machine:
Check the battery
You don't want to run out of charge halfway through a session that's providing you with relief, so make sure the battery is fully charged before beginning.
Clean the skin
The device needs to make good contact with your skin to work. Before applying the pads, you should clean the skin. Be careful to read the guidelines on your machine: some may recommend that you use alcohol, while others may say to avoid it as it dries the skin and can lead to inflammation from the pads. The manufacturer will know which is best for your product.
A special gel is used on the electrode pads to ensure a good connection. Apply the gel to the pads according to the instructions provided by the manufacturer.
Place the pads
For the best results, place the first pad on the area where you feel pain. The second pad is mainly to complete the circuit and allow electricity to flow. If you have pain on both sides of your back, place the second pad on the opposite side. If not, you can place it next to the first one.
Attach the electrodes
The electrode pads need to be connected to both your back and the machine in order to work. If they are not already connected, make that connection first.
Adjust the setting
Finding the right setting to relieve your pain will take a little trial and error. When you are using the machine for the first time, start with the lowest setting to get a feel for the sensations it causes. Gradually increase the effects until you find a setting that works for you. If other people share the device, remember which settings you prefer.
Most TENS units will have a clip or other device that will allow you to attach them to your clothing, so you don't have to stay in one place or hold the machine for the entire period of its use.
Like any pain relief method, TENS is a temporary solution, not a permanent one. This doesn't mean that you can't use it regularly if you have chronic pain. However, if your pain doesn't clear up after a few weeks, it could be a sign of something more serious. Rather than continuing to mask the problem with the TENS unit, you should see a doctor.
There are a few other situations where using a TENS unit may be uncomfortable or unsafe:
In the bathtub
This one is probably obvious, but don't attach electrodes to yourself while in the bathtub.
If you have epilepsy
The use of a TENS unit by someone with epilepsy may cause seizures. Consult with your doctor before trying one.
If you have lymphedema
TENS therapy can affect the circulatory system. Although this is harmless for most people, it can cause additional fluid buildup for those with lymphedema.
If you have a pacemaker
As they are electrical devices, pacemakers may not function correctly when combined with the electric impulses of a TENS unit.
If you are pregnant
Although not harmful to the mother, the effects of a TENS unit on the unborn child are unknown. Usage should be avoided unless directed by a doctor.
After an allergic reaction
Don’t use a TENS machine if the gel used on the electrode pads causes an allergic reaction.
Over a tumor
Although there's not a clear link between tumor growth and TENS usage, applying the pads directly over a tumor is not recommended.
Over a wound
Placing a TENS electrode over a wound can slow down the healing process and might be painful.
Though millions of people experience back pain, this doesn’t mean that there is a ‘one size fits all’ solution. There are a lot of treatments for back pain out there, ranging from medications to exercise to more invasive procedures like surgery and injections. TENS therapy is another potentially useful tool for you to try in your quest to ease your lower back pain.
When purchasing a TENS unit, be sure to buy from reputable sources. Read the instruction manual before using the device, and consult with a doctor if anything feels wrong during the use of the unit.