Last Updated March 2, 2021
Sometimes, life comes with some aches and pains. From your shoulders to your toes, from severe to mild and isolated to all over, pains can be frustrating and annoying, especially when they get in the way of being able to do your normal, everyday activities.
Often, people may use a variety of methods to alleviate and soothe pain. From natural methods like stretching and herbs or oils to over the counter pills, people are in search of relief for pain. They may spend hundreds of dollars on acupuncture or chiropractic care or need to simply manage their pain without help.
Perhaps a more unknown method of pain relief comes through a connection between your brain and body. It’s called a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS unit. Some people have praised its powers for alleviating pain and empowering them to continue on with their life.
But what actually is a TENS unit and what are the best options out there to explore for yourself? With a dedication to helping you find your path forward toward better health, we’re here for you. In this article, we share with you the many functions and values of using a TENS unit. We’ll also share some recommendations if you’re interested in using it to alleviate pain for yourself.
What is a TENS Unit?
A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit is a helpful tool in which many people have found relief from pain. A TENS unit is a device powered by a battery that connects your brain’s activity with the pain you experience. It allows the user to be able to deliver just the right amount of relief for their pain without overwhelming their system. A TENS unit may be unique designed and manufactured to be used in a hospital or other setting in related cases. Or, you can find TENS units online for own personal use at home.
How Does a TENS Unit Work
A TENS unit works by sending small electrical impulses. These impulses are sent through electrodes that are attached to someone’s skin through adhesive pads. The pain relief is possible because of those electrical impulses. When they are sent, they fill up space in your nervous system. With less space, the nervous system has a reduced ability to send pain signals to the spinal cord and brain from wherever you are experiencing discomfort.
Put another way, this type of therapy reduces hyperalgesia, which is pain sensitivity on a high level. This control of pain signals creates temporary or permanent pain relief for anywhere on your body.
There’s also no preparation or other steps you’ll need to do before you undergo TENS unit therapy. Its ease of use and low-risk approach enables you to use it when you need to find some pain relief.
Controlling the Pain Relief Level
Someone using a TENS unit has the opportunity to administer just the right amount of pain relief to their injury or condition based on their tolerance, preference and comfort level. These adjustments can be made in a variety of ways.
One way to adjust the level of pain relief administered is to increase or decrease the intensity at which the electrical current is sent. Those more sensitive to these electrical impulses may appreciate the ability to reduce the level if they feel discomfort from it, especially when first starting to use it.
Another way to change the level of pain relief provided is by changing the frequency of pulses that are sent. These pulses are measured in seconds. Those suffering from acute pain, which is directly related to a particular incident or injury, typically find the best relief in using the high frequency setting. If you choose the setting of a high frequency, the electrical pulses will cycle through at a rate of 80 to 120 cycles per second. Those suffering from a more chronic and long-lasting pain should use the low frequency setting. This low frequency sends electrical pulses at a rate of 1 to 20 cycles per second.
Finally, a user can also use the duration of pulse as a way to adjust the level of pain relief experienced. This measures the length of time that the electrical current enters into your skin for each pulse. The duration is measured in microseconds and can be adjusted based on your preference and comfort level.
TENS vs EMS
Among electrical-impuse related treatment methods, there comes some options. While often thought of as the same the TENS and the EMS systems are actually quite different in purpose and operation. As the TENS unit sends impulses to block pain signals, the EMS does something different. EMS stands for Electrical Muscle Stimulation and is focused on alleviating inflammation and strengthening the muscle. While it works in a similar way as the TENS unit, this process involves sending electrical impulses that are sent right to the muscle. This impulse causes the muscle to contract and then relax to improve blood circulation. This functional difference makes each resource helpful in different settings.
TENS units are much more associated with nerve pain and other forms of pain. On the other hand, EMS units are much more focused on muscle health and healing. If you’re experiencing muscle pain as an athlete or in just regular activity, an EMS may be a better option for you.
TENS Unit Uses
With such a powerful ability to minimize the pain signals that are sent to your brain, a TENS unit can be used for a variety of sources of discomfort. They can be used to treat minor, everyday symptoms or more intensive, long-term conditions.
For example, some women have found relief from menstrual pain and cramps with the help of a TENS unit. Women also may use a TENS unit during labor to alleviate the severe pain in a natural, non-invasive way.
Other symptomatic types of uses for TENS units include pains related to after an operation or surgery. Using this battery-operated device allows the recovering person to not have to take another medication for pain relief or other postoperative process. Still others may use a TENS unit for other muscle aches and joint pains. They may be used to reduce pain experienced in highly fatigued areas such as your neck or back.
For those experiencing other health conditions, a TENS unit may also be very helpful and effective in reducing pain. Health concerns relating to tissue and tendons such as endometriosis or fibromyalgia may reduce in pain with the help of a TENS unit. Athletes who have experienced an injury in their muscles, tendons, ligaments or bones may also find some much-needed relief through a TENS unit. This tool has also been used by people with bone and joint conditions such as those with arthritis or multiple sclerosis.
Whether it’s an occasional, annoying pain or a debilitating condition that prevents mobility and living your best life, a TENS unit may be able to provide you the help and relief you need to keep moving forward and do what you love doing.
Benefits of Using a TENS Unit
With so many uses, it’s easy to see why a TENS Unit can be an easy and quick option for those experiencing pain. One of the key benefits of a TENS unit is that it does not require the user to take additional pills in what may already be a full load. Not having to take pain relief pills also may reduce the unfortunate side affects that may be associated with certain types of pills.
TENS units are also small in size and easily portable. This incognito approach makes them easy to take around without having people notice your use of one. Some varieties allow you to keep it in your pocket so you can easily access it during the day. With its ease of use and convenient form, you never have to be without pain relief during the day.
Who Should and Can Use a TENS Unit
While TENS units can be very helpful for some people, it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone. Using good judgment about the use of them and being intentional about best practices can help you make the most of them if you choose to use them.
People experiencing minor, chronic or acute pain can find relief in using a TENS unit. For most people, it is a safe way to find some much needed relief due to a variety of reasons. From those suffering from chronic conditions like fibromyalgia, arthritis or back pain or have more acute pain due to an operation, menstruation or an injury can all find relief.
There are also people who should not be using TENS units, for a variety of reasons. Women who are pregnant should not use the TENS unit in their abdomen or pelvic areas. Due to the electrons and electric currents, it’s not recommended for people with epilepsy to use TENS units. Using them may induce seizures and cause challenges. People who experience additional heart problems or have a pacemaker or other electrical implant should also not use a TENS unit as it can complicate their systems.
If you’re not sure if you should be using a TENS unit for pain relief, connect with your doctor. They can help recommend best practices and ensure it’s a safe and convenient way to find relief.
Are TENS Units Safe?
When used appropriately and intentionally, TENS units rarely have negative side effects. Most people who use them indicate that they do not experience negative side effects.
Nonetheless, it’s important to keep in mind that TENS units use electrical impulses to provide pain relief. This tingling or prickling sensation that may be experienced due to the electrical impulses may be discomforting to some people. Another effect that is something to watch out for in using TENS units is the adhesive pads that attach to your body. Particularly if you have fairly sensitive skin, be aware of any allergic reactions you may have to the pads. Usually this appears as red skin or other irritation where the adhesive pad was. If you do experience this, not to worry! Adhesive pads also come in hypoallergenic varieties that will be easier on your skin and not cause irritation.
Another key thing to keep in mind about using TENS units is where to place the electrodes as you administer the pain relief. It is severely important that you don’t place those adhesive pads near your eyes or your neck. Doing so will cause serious effects such as causing a loss in blood pressure, spasms and additional injury.
How to Choose a TENS Unit
Like the pain or discomfort you’re experiencing, your TENS unit is unique to you. The pain relief you need may look different than the pain relief that your friend needs. Knowing what you’re looking for in a TENS unit and how it can help you find healing and comfort is key as you choose your resource. Be sure to factor in things like the location of your pain, the intensity of your pain and your overall lifestyle as you choose the TENS unit right for you. While many TENS units share the same basic functions and capabilities, there may be some additional features or options for certain models.
As you search for the TENS unit that’s right for you, there are some things you’ll want to keep in mind and answer for yourself as you make your choice. Omron explains some key features that you’ll want to be mindful of. These features include things like treating several different areas of the body that experience pain as well as different built-in modes to accommodate those different areas. You’ll also want to find a model that offers varying levels of intensity of electrical impulses so that you can select the level of pain relief you need.
This flexibility and range of options is something you’ll want to keep in mind as you make your selection. Being able to adjust the levels of intensity, frequency and more of the electric impulses can help you treat your pain the right way.
To ensure the safety and trustworthiness of the product, you may also want to ensure that it’s FDA-cleared to be used. Convenience factors like easy to use, portable and user-friendly buttons and displays may also rank high on your priority list.
Beyond those essentials, TENS units have developed and been innovated to include an even richer range of elaborate features that make them even easier to use and reliable. Omron suggests these other features include things like technology connections where you can connect to your mobile app or your wearable device with Bluetooth. You may also want to be able to control pain management into different areas of your body at once or incorporate heat into your relief. These non-essential but highly valuable features may be worth exploring as you find the right TENS unit for you and your pain management.
Choosing your TENS unit is something that’s based on where you’re at with pain relief. For example, for chronic pain with an intensity that’s medium to high and located in different areas of your body, you may want to consider a TENS unit that has a lot of options and opportunities to adjust the level of relief through those electrical impulses. You’ll want to change the mode or intensity based on where you are experiencing more or less pain so you can administer it appropriately.
TENS units also come in a variety of price points depending on the features and other components they may include. Usually, you can get a reliable and quality TENS unit for less than $50. However, wireless or other devices with heightened technological components may be at a higher price. No matter your budget, you can still find a great option that gets you the pain relief you need, when you need it.
Often, the convenience of being able to carry your TENS unit around and make adjustments as needed is one of the most desired attributes of these devices. Keep those important factors in mind as you make your own selection of a TENS unit.
TENS Pads – Where Can You Apply Them On Your Body?
When using a TENS unit, the placement of the pads that connect the electrical impulses is very important. Placing them properly will help deliver effective pain relief to where you need it most. Where you place them depends on where you experience pain. Be sure you use at least two of the pads when applying to get the most out of the experience. Changing the distance between the pads also affects the flow of electrical impulses that occurs, which affects what settings you choose on the unit.
For example, if you have pain that covers a lot of area, Tenspros recommends placing a pad vertically in the main area where you experience pain. The second pad should be placed at the very lowest part of the affected area of pain. This placement method is common if you have overall back pain.
Yet when you’re experiencing pain in a more concentrated area, such as in your calf or arm, you can place the pads parallel where the pain is occurring. Tenspros also recommends to place the pad in a horizontal direction when the pain happens on your joint. Be sure to not position your pads directly over a joint. Placing these pads in strategic spots can help you get the most out of this drug-free pain relief option.
Can I Sleep With a TENS Unit On?
Due to the electrical impulses sent, it is important that you do not sleep with the TENS unit operating. However, some people find it helpful to use a TENS unit to help them fall asleep. In such cases, it’s important to set a timer or remember to turn it off prior to falling asleep. Having the TENS unit operating for too long or while you are asleep causes you to not feel the strength of the current and therefore lead to burning or other irritations on your skin.
Do TENS Units Work – Are They Worth It?
Despite their popularity, TENS units do not have an overwhelming amount of research and evidence to prove that these electrical impulses are a consistent and reliable treatment for pain. Nevertheless, there have been studies that show that conditions like fibromyalgia were eased with the use of a TENSE treatment machine.
For most people, TENS units work very well as a low-risk relief of pain due to a variety of causes. However, things such as one’s tolerance to the electrical impulses, intensity of the stimulation as well as where the electrodes are placed on your body can all affect the process of the TENS units.
Despite the lack of scientific proof, TENS units are still used very commonly as a way to relieve pain in a way that requires no pills and is not intensive.
How Often Can You Use a TENS Unit?
TENS units should be administered in sessions of shorter durations. It’s important to not use the TENS unit for long periods of time as doing so can lead to unintended consequences or skin irritations.
Ormon suggests to begin with a simple 15-minute session of electrotherapy using the TENS unit. Then, repeat as necessary. They suggest to not use it more than three times per day to prevent irritation.
As you use the TENS unit, it’s important to take inventory of your pain levels before, during and after your TENS therapy session. Track how the unit is affecting you and how well it is working to alleviate your pain. While the solution tends to be temporary, it may have more longer-term effects as well in alleviating pain.
How to Care for a TENS Unit
To make your TENS unit last long and functional, it’s important to take care of your unit both while you’re using it and while not in use. Oftentimes, TENS units come with their own carrying cases, which makes it easy to travel with it safely. Read the instructional manual and quick start guides that most often accompany your device to see how you can best store your unit and wrap the cords when and when not in use.
Top TENS Units for Pain Relief
Think a TENS unit is right for you? There are a lot of options to choose from. The best TENS unit for you will depend on what kind of pain you’re experiencing, where the pain is located and your lifestyle habits. With so many options and unique features to include, you can choose a unit that’s just right for you in managing your pain.
As you search for your right TENS unit, there’s a lot to choose from. To help you get started, here we share some of the best TENS units based on your preference and pain. We provide a brief review for the category as well as some options you may want to consider looking into.
Best TENS Unit
Typically, the most popular and user-friendly TENS units are those that have capability to adjust the settings of intensity and duration of the electric impulses so you can administer the right kind of pain when you need it. These versatile options may fit well for both those suffering from chronic pain and also for those with acute, isolated pain.
For example, the Nursal Rechargeable Unit can be a great option. It’s a best seller on Amazon and comes with a variety of features and components that helps it fit well into your lifestyle. It’s also available online for just $30, making it an easy and affordable solution to quick and reliable pain relief.
Another popular option may be the TechCare Pro24. It comes with a variety of modes and other additional features that allow you to determine exactly the type and level of pain relief you need. It comes at an affordable price of just $33 on Amazon and is fairly stylish as well. With its small size, it can also remain discrete as you use it when you need it.
Best TENS Unit for Shoulder Pain
Your shoulders are important in mobility and strength. When you’ve got pain, you need resolutions. A TENS unit can be very effective in alleviating chronic or acute shoulder pain. You may also find a TENS unit that is specific to addressing your shoulder area as you continue to recover and manage your pain.
This ZewaSpaBuddy Sport TENS unit is great for especially athletes who are experiencing shoulder pain from exercise or injury. It’s easy to use and small so you can stay on the go with it. It comes with a variety of intensity levels and channels so you can deliver the pain relief according to your preferences. The pads are easy to apply and it can be used on more than just your shoulders.
Best TENS Unit for Back Pain
One of the most common uses for a TENS units due to chronic pain is for the back. Your back affects so much of your life and when it hurts, your whole body can feel it. Luckily, there are TENS units that are specifically designed to help you find relief for your back pain. While you may have tried heating pads or ice packs, a TENS unit can be another option in helping provide healing.
TENS units like this iReliev Tens Unit Back Pain Relief System comes with an adjustable wrap that provides comfort to delivering soothing treatment. This wrap makes it unique for especially back pain in providing another level of care for you.
Best TENS Unit for Neck Pain
Another area that can experience pain frequently is the neck. Whether its from an injury, overuse or staying in a static position for too long of a time, neck soreness can cause other ailments like headaches, migraines and more. With a TENS unit, you can address that neck pain and get back to feeling more like yourself. Some TENS units are specifically designed to massage and bring comfort to your neck. These models are intentional about not causing damage to your neck or other skin irritations in what can be a sensitive area.
This Massager from Better Neck has different modes and adjustable options to ensure that you find the relief when and how you need it. It’s small size allows it to be discrete as you wear it. It also comes with added benefits like increasing blood flow and relieves headaches and migraines.
Wireless TENS Unit
From chargers to TVs to electrical appliances, our stuff already comes with enough wires and cords. One key feature of certain TENS units is the ability to go wireless. This capability allows you to easily take your TENS unit on the go and get relief when and where you need it.
The wireless option also allows you to not have to struggle with untangling cords or other wires when packing or storing your TENS unit when not in use. Most often, you can also control the TENS unit using just your phone or other remote. Going wire-free empowers you with freedom and ease as you take your TENS unit on the go.
The Wireless TENS + EMS Therapeutic Wearable System combines the ease and freedom of wireless capabilities while providing both TENS and EMS treatment. While it’s a little on the pricier side, sitting at about $250, it brings powerful medical-grade relief for your pain. This unit also records your previous settings so you can easily jump back into the same treatment you’re used to.
Portable TENS Unit
One of the most convenient features of TENS units is their portability and ease of use whether you’re at home or on the go. Having a unit that’s portable allows you to have quick access to pain relief when and wherever you need it. If you’re away from home, you don’t need to go the whole day out and about without getting the safe pain relief you need to keep going during the day. Especially for chronic pain sufferers, these portable TENS units can be a way to get relief when you need it.
This Pocket Pain Pro TENS unit from Omron is small and compact but brings the pain relief you need. It’s designed to be a great solution for achy muscles or other joint pains you may experience. You can easily hide it as you travel and move around. It’s just 2.8” x 3”, so it’s very easy to carry around. The pads on the device are also long-lasting, durable and gentle on your skin. Even more, it comes with a 1-year guarantee and batteries to start so you can get on your way to fast relief. This affordable option sells for just $45, making it an easy, versatile choice.
Best Priced TENS Units
To get the pain relief you need, you don’t have to sacrifice your wallet. While these TENS units bring powerful and transformative relief to your pain, they also don’t need to cost a lot. If you’re paying particular attention to your budget, you may be already concerned about pain management in doctor visits or other medications. This affordable pain relief option can be an affordable and efficient way to find sustainable relief.
While these more economically-friendly options may not come with as many features, bells and whistles as some of the more advanced devices, they still get the job done well. This ChoiceMed OTC Tens Unit Electronic Pulse Massager sells on Amazon for just $23. A bargain like this makes it an appealing option that comes with a variety of levels of pain relief all on an easy-to-read device.
Most Powerful TENS Units
Depending on the type of TENS unit you’re looking for, these devices can bring powerful relief, which is helpful especially in severe cases of pain. While they may not always look like it, most TENS units bring a range of options that can bring intense relief through electric impulses.
This Omron Pocket Pain Pro TENS Unit is small in size but big in bringing pain relief when and where you need it. It works well for a variety of areas of your body where you’re experiencing pain. It’s also a great option for all budgets at just $40.
Find Pain Relief with a TENS Unit
If you’re looking for relief from chronic or acute pain, you don’t need to turn to only medication. With the power of electrical impulses and the brain’s relationship to pain, you can find relief. A TENS unit provides a risk-free, non-intensive solution to common, everyday pain and relief from injuries or acute issues. Use this helpful resource to discover what kind of TENS unit is right and get on your way to quick, natural pain relief with electrotherapy.