Understanding Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a therapy that uses mild electricity to treat pain. A TENS machine is a small gadget with wires. The wires attach to sticky electrode pads placed on your body. The machine then sends electricity to areas of your body through the pads.

How to say it


Why TENS is done

TENS can help ease:

  • Nerve pain

  • Pain after surgery

  • Arthritis or other joint pain

  • Other types of chronic body aches and pains

TENS therapy is still being studied to understand how it works. It may work by interfering with pain signals moving along nerves on their way to the brain. Or it may work by activating chemicals in the body (endorphins) that can reduce pain. TENS pain relief is short-term (temporary). So the treatment can be done as often as needed.

How TENS is done

TENS therapy can be done in a medical office or physical therapy clinic. Or you may be shown how to do it at home. During treatment:

  • Your skin will be cleaned in the areas where the electrode pads will go. Your hair may be trimmed.

  • The healthcare provider puts electrode pads on or near the area of pain, or on other places on your body. He or she may put a gel on the pads first.

  • The provider attaches wires to the electrodes and to the TENS machine.

  • The machine sends electrical signals to the electrode pads. You will likely have a tingling or prickly feeling in the area. Tell the healthcare provider if you feel burning instead.

The machine has controls for changing the signals from weak to strong as needed. The healthcare provider may try different levels to see which works best for you. If stronger electricity is used, you may feel nearby muscles twitching.

Your treatment may last from 30 to 60 minutes. After the treatment, the TENS machine is turned off and the electrodes are removed. You may need the treatment 2 to 3 times a day.

Risks of TENS

  • Skin irritation at the electrode sites

  • Allergic rash (dermatitis) from electrodes, adhesive, or gel

  • Electrical skin burns at the electrode sites

  • Breakdown of a pacemaker or another implanted device

TENS is not recommended if:

  • You are pregnant or think you may be pregnant

  • You have epilepsy or a history of abnormal heart rhythm

  • You have a pacemaker or other metal implant in your body