Dr. Daryl Lawson, PT, DSc
Associate Professor and Chair, APTA Biophysical Agent Special Interest Group
Most of us have ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or similar medicines in our cabinet for the odd headache or sore muscle. But what happens when the pain becomes more regular or longer lasting? What effect can these, or even stronger pain management medicines, have on our health when taken over time?
Today, more people are looking for drug-free alternatives to relieve their pain. One such option is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS. This drug-free pain relief technology has been used by physical therapists and physicians for decades, and has been converted into compact, portable devices that make it easy to treat pain on various parts of the body in the comfort of your own home.
“TENS works by passing mild electric pulses through the skin to engage the body’s own pain relief mechanisms,” explained Dr. Daryl Lawson, PT, DSc, an associate professor, chair of the APTA Biophysical Agent Special Interest group, and expert in pain management. “TENS has been shown effective against acute (short-term), chronic (long-term), and arthritic pain.” 1, 2
How TENS works
Scientific theory suggests TENS may combat pain in several ways:
- The gentle electrical pulses move through the skin to nearby nerves to block the pain signal from reaching the brain.
- The gentle electrical pulses increase the production of the body’s natural painkillers (endorphins).
- Muscles contract and relax with the flow of the electrical stimulation, improving blood flow.
Application of TENS is easy — you simply attach electrode pads on either side of the pain location. The electrodes attach to a handheld device, which allows you to adjust the method or “mode” of the current, and its intensity or “strength.” Some modes are often described as feeling like a gentle massage, or a tapping or kneading sensation. There are even TENS devices that include heat as part of therapy.
Today, TENS devices are readily available at most local retail pharmacies and many of their online stores. Talk to your physician or physical therapist about which option is right for you.
This content has been paid for by Omron Health.
1. Lawson D, Lee KH, Kang HB, Yang N, Llewellyn T, Takamatsu S. Efficacy of microcurrent therapy for treatment of acute knee pain: A randomized double-blinded controlled clinical trial. Clin Rehabil. Published online October 23, 2020:0269215520965320.
2. Shimoura K, Iijima H, Suzuki Y, Aoyama T. Immediate Effects of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation on Pain and Physical Performance in Individuals With Preradiographic Knee Osteoarthritis: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. Published online October 2018.