TENS Offers Alternative to Pain Medication

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

If you suffer acute or chronic pain, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may provide an option for pain relief beyond prescriptions, according to local experts.

TENS works by introducing a low dose of electricity to stimulate the tissues in the body. Essentially, that interrupts the body’s pain signal to the brain. The device attaches to the body through adhesive patches that connect with wires.

“There’s clear evidence it can relieve pain and this has been used for many years,” said physician Az Tahir, who practices holistic medicine in Rochester. “It’s covered by many insurance companies because it works.”

Tahir said that TENS has no side effects, except for allergy to the adhesive used in the pads, and few contraindications. People who are pregnant, have cancer, epilepsy or heart arrhythmia should ask their healthcare providers before using TENS.

The devices are available over the counter and are used in provider’s offices.

Those offering more diverse modalities for pain treatment often include TENS in among their methods. The main difference between clinical TENS units and home units are that health care providers use heavier duty models.

Rachel Macri, doctor of physical therapy with Crouse Hospital Out-patient Physical Therapy, said that the basic physiology of TENS goes back to the Gate Theory of pain that asserts blocking the fast-acting nerve fibers from sending their message of pain can stop the progression of pain signals through the spinal cord.

The pain relief from TENS tends to be short-term, which can help take the edge off a painful injury or condition; however,Macri said, “it’s a Band-Aid; it doesn’t address the mechanical issue. For temporary pain relief, it can help, but if it’s a chronic, ongoing issue, no research suggests TENS is good to address that pain.”

Many people immediately rub a banged elbow. The rubbing lessens the feeling of pain by distracting the brain with a different sensation. That’s similar to how TENS works.

Macri said that typically, her office doesn’t use TENS often as it can take as long as 10 minutes to set up and five minutes to take down, which isn’t as practical as other modalities. The use of TENS by a professional in a setting like her office isn’t typically covered by insurance.

Since the units are small and lightweight, people can use them while undergoing physical activities if they wish, as long as the leads can stay out of the way. As portable, non-medication pain relief, TENS can help them get through the day or make it through their physical therapy exercises. But users should not view TENS as a long-term solution to pain problems.

“It is hard to assess your own body mechanics and limitations so it’s important to get screened if you have a continuation of the pain issue to address the root cause,” Macri said.