In the United States, it’s estimated that between 50 million and 100 million people experience chronic pain. About two in five sufferers’ quality of life is significantly impacted due to their decreased ability to work, perform normal personal care activities, and socialize with friends, family, and community members. That’s why finding a safe and effective treatment option to help alleviate the debilitating effects of your pain is so important.
What is TENS?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and it’s a technique that sends a low-voltage electrical current into your body to positively alter your nerves’ pain signaling responses. Your physical therapist uses a small hand-held machine that is connected to a few electrodes that they’ll attach to your body. The current is then activated and gently stimulates your nerve fibers to temporarily ease your pain.
TENS typically is found to be most effective for your pain management routine when you’re new to the treatment, or you’ve had a break between therapy sessions. Professional pain management specialists recommend it for both localized and widespread pain because it’s such a safe and comfortable way to ease your pain symptoms, with fewer side effects than some medications.
Understanding the Impact of Pain
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), chronic pain restricts mobility and can lead to anxiety, depression, and lowered expectations for a high-quality life. Even if your pain is expected to end once your injury is healed or medical treatments are complete, your body’s response to it may actually extend the time it takes you to heal. This is because debilitating acute (short-term) or chronic (long-term) pain can trigger your body’s stress response and overtax your immune system. The inflammation caused by this stress response can also irritate your nerves and further increase your pain levels. In some people, just the emotional anticipation of more pain has been shown to intensify it.
TENS and Pain Management
The good news is that, when properly used for specific types of pain, TENS has the ability to lower your pain levels so that you can get back to enjoying some of your normal social, family, work, and recreational activities. While it’s not a cure for the underlying causes of pain, it can help alleviate your symptoms and improve your quality of life so you can better manage your condition.
Take a look at 5 top ways that pain management specialists use TENS to help you manage your pain.
1. Treating Back Pain
It may surprise you to learn that up to 80% of adults will report experiencing at least one episode of back pain in their lifetime. Because of its central role in housing your spinal cord, plus numerous muscles, joints, bones, and ligaments, your back is prone to injury and chronic conditions that affect these structures. In addition to reducing pain signaling, TENS’ electrical impulses also stimulate the release of your body’s natural endorphins. These are chemicals that are often dubbed “feel good” agents because they are designed to reduce your stress and pain so that you can work on strengthening your back.
2. Managing Arthritis Pain
Osteoarthritis, which is the wearing down of joint cartilage, is the most common form of arthritis and affects nearly 33 million Americans. A recent 2020 study found that early-stage osteoarthritic knee patients were able to improve their mobility after the application of TENS therapy. The treatment can also be used for more generalized arthritis pain because of its ability to reduce the stress response that leads to inflammation. This reduced inflammation helps decrease stiff, sore, and painful joints to improve your ability to perform daily tasks.
3. Reducing Cancer Treatment Pain
In ‘How You Can Relieve Cancer Pain’, we revealed that TENS has been shown to be beneficial to people who experience pain from treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation. Many people report feeling strong aches and pains that can lead to nausea and loss of appetite while they undergo these therapies. Good nutrition has been shown to be vital for assisting in the cancer healing process. TENS ability to “scramble” nerve signaling to help stop pain assists patients with feeling well enough to eat again, and gain the strength they need for a faster recovery.
4. Alleviating Post-Surgery Pain
Practitioners agree that surgery is one of the most invasive medical treatments they recommend to their patients, yet for many people it’s their only option to repair and heal injury, illness, and imbalances in the body. Different surgeries bring different levels of pain, but most procedures will cause you some post-surgery discomfort. For instance, spasms are common for those who’ve had back surgery, and TENS has been shown to be an effective treatment to reduce these spasms. It’s also used as part of the post-care routine for chest and heart, abdominal, orthopedic, and gynecological surgeries because it can help reduce the cramping that’s common while your muscles heal.
5. Improving Spinal Cord Injury Pain
The spinal cord is approximately 18 inches of nerves in your Central Nervous System (CNS) that connect your Periphereal Nervous System (PNS) to your brain, and help coordinate all your reflexes. It is housed in your spinal column, which is made up of 33 vertebrae, or hard bones that are stacked on top of one other. When injuries or alterations occur in these bones, the pain can be intense. For instance, narrowing of the spine’s spaces where nerves pass through (spinal stenosis) and compression fractures can both negatively impact the nerves of your spinal cord. In addition to helping temporarily alleviate nerve pain signaling caused by these conditions, TENS has been shown to reduce the painful muscle spasticity that’s often associated with spinal cord injuries.