Natural Pain Relief: Should I Use a TENS Machine For Labor?

Pregnant women have many choices when it comes to controlling labor pains, but often are unaware of natural or drug-free alternatives. If you want to have a natural childbirth, but are concerned about managing labor pains, one option is TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation).

Continue reading to learn more about the usage of TENS therapy and whether it could be a viable option for you during the latter stages of your pregnancy and early stages of labor.

Please remember that you should always consult with a medical professional before undergoing any pain management. The information contained on this page does not constitute as, and nor should it be used as a substitute for, professional diagnosis or treatment.

What is TENS?

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy has been around for years and can be used as natural pain relief for many afflictions, including labor pains. The small, hand-held machines use a mild and painless electrical current to relieve pain.

Reducing back pain is the most common uses for TENS units, and back pain during pregnancy and the early stages of labor is a frequent complaint.

TENS can be used as natural pain relief for many afflictions, including labor pains
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By placing small sticky pads on the back, TENS units stimulate the nerves, which in turn reduce the pain signals going to your brain. The theory is that the electrical stimulations increase the production of endorphins to provide the body with natural painkillers.

When should I use a TENS machine during pregnancy and labor?

TENS is most effective when used during early labor to help expecting mothers get through contractions. To get the most benefit from TENS therapy, experts recommend that the unit is not kept on continuously during contractions in order to provide maximum benefits of pain relief.

You can control the frequency and strength of the pulses in order to get maximum results and relief for your body.

When initiated at the early stages of labor, TENS often can be continued during established labor if your midwife or doctor deems it safe. Because it is an electronic device, TENS may not be suitable for all birthing situations, such as if your baby’s heart rate needs to be monitored, which is at your doctor or midwife’s discretion.

There are mixed opinions as to whether TENS can be utilized or practiced in the latter stages of pregnancy. Many experts agree that TENS units should not be used prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy, unless your doctor, midwife or physical therapist advises you.

However, in an article by University of Hertfordshire Professor of Physiotherapy Tim Watson, as long as the applied energy is positioned in such a way that it does not reach the fetus, there should be no reason why electrode positioning and machine set up couldn’t be practiced in latter stages of pregnancy.

Watson states that:

…it might be distinctly advantageous to do for optimal pain relief effects.

Is it effective?

TENS has been used in hospitals around the world since the 1960s, with no adverse side effects.However it is more commonly used during labor in Europe, Canada and Australia, but is exceedingly rare in the US.

There is not much evidence to show how effective TENS machines are during labor, but most midwives support their use, and one in five women plans to use a machine at some point in labor.

UK consumer choice magazine, Which? carried out a survey in March 2014 to determine get information on TENS.

In the survey over more than 1,200 moms who’d given birth within the last five years, 22% had used TENS and 68% said the machines provided effective or very effective pain relief.

Only one in ten, or 12% of respondents, said it was not effective in managing labor pains.

According to the King Edward Memorial Hospital in Australia, most women who used TENS during labor would use it again during subsequent births.

A mom on the Essential Baby forum in Australia says:

I used it for my second labor and loved it. At the hospital I found it great as it really helped me focus through each contraction and made them far more manageable. I felt 100% in control the whole labor and will definitely use it with my next.

On the What to Expect Forum, a mom supports the use of TENS in subsequent births based on her first-time experience of using TENS after the hospital gave one to her.

She says:

I went in when my contractions were 4-5 mins apart to see what the deal was and I was only 1.5cm so they offered me the TENS machine and let me go home. I used it right up until pushing (8 hours later) and I’ll be using it again this time.

Many women don’t realize how effective TENS can be, until they take the machine off.

Netmums member Nicola, who used TENS during all three of her labors, commented that:

I didn’t think it was working too well with my first until I tried to take it off to have a bath

Many women don’t realize how effective TENS can be, until they take the machine off
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Experienced practitioners believe if is TENS initiated in the early stages of labor, it increases endorphin production prior to severe pain. Although, some women may find that they need additional or other forms of relief as labor progresses.

A woman on Netmums commented regarding the use and effectiveness by stating:

I would definitely recommend – I used one in my second labor and thought it was fantastic (didn’t use any other pain relief). I think the key to using them is to put it on as early as possible in labor, to give your body time to build up natural endorphins.

While another mom on Essential Baby:

…had gas and air right at the end, but didn’t feel that it helped as much as the TENS.

Of course there are some women who don’t find TENS to be effective for them. This can happen, and if you’ve read our article on TENS therapy, you will be aware the level of effectiveness does depend on the individual and their condition.

However, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t give it a try if it is deemed suitable by professionals for your birth plan. One mom explains on Netmums:

I went on to give birth to twins with just gas and air but I don’t think the time on the TENS machine had any impact on that. That said a lot of women do feel it works for them, so I agree you should give it a try. It wasn’t unpleasant so I’d give it a go. Good luck!

Remember that research results on the effectiveness of TENS for relieving labor pain are conflicting and it’s best to speak to your doctor or midwife to understand whether TENS is appropriate for you and your baby.

Benefits of TENS during labor

A combination of factors contribute to the potential benefits of using a TENS unit during labor. Women find that the use of TENS therapy helps them to feel in control of labor, be less anxious and offers a distraction from contractions.

Many women prefer or choose to use TENS during labor because it is a drug-free alternative and allows them to be present during their child’s birth.

Many women prefer or choose to use TENS during labor because it is a drug-free alternative
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Medical professionals and experts have advocated several advantages of using TENS, including:

  • It is safe for you and your baby
  • You don’t need an anesthesiologist, doctor or midwife to use it
  • You can keep moving while using
  • It’s portable and non-invasive
  • You control it
  • Unlike drugs, there are no lasting side-effects
  • It can be used during a home birth
  • It’s easy to use

UK medical sources, including the NHS and Oxford Health, state that there are no known side effects from using TENS to you or your baby.

Drug-free methods of controlling labor pain are an important choice for many women because local anesthetics, opioids or other analgesics can cross the placenta, affecting the newborn.

Notably, TENS doesn’t have a ‘wearing-off’ period like intravenous drugs and can be stopped at any time. Unlike pain medication or epidural, TENS can be used at any point, or stopped, at any point throughout labor.

TENS can be used at any point, or stopped, at any point throughout labor
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One of the most notable benefits of TENS during labor is that it provides a welcome distraction and gives the mother something else to think about. On a forum, one mom posted:

I used a TENS machine for the first 15 hours of labor but I can’t say for certain that it helped with the pain. It definitely gave me something else to think about though which helped. I would recommend getting one and trying it to see what happens. If you don’t like it just take it off. They’re not too expensive and worth it if it helps.

Disadvantages of TENS during labor

There are some potential disadvantages and considerations with TENS units during labor:

  • It can not be used for a water birth (but can be used before you get in a bath or birth pool)
  • You cannot use if you have epilepsy, a pacemaker or heart rhythm problem
  • It does not completely eradicate labor pains
  • Some women say they felt no pain reduction
  • It may need to be removed if your baby’s heart had to be monitored
  • Because the pads must be attached to your back, your birth partner may not be able to able to use any labor massage techniques.
  • TENS machines often require assistance to ensure the pads are in the correct position

Should you buy or rent?

TENS machines (like these) are readily available to purchase or rent. You can spend anywhere from $30 upwards for a device.

There is a variety on the market so it may be wise to ask your doctor or midwife for their recommendations. Special maternity TENS machines have features such as contraction timers, preset modes, and boost buttons. If you think you will use the device again then it is most likely cheaper to buy one.

If you’d prefer not to buy one, there are many machines that are available for short-term rentals. Look online, or check with your doctor or midwife, to find one in an area close to you.

Another alternative is to borrow one from a friend, or share the cost with another pregnant friend or relative. Some hospitals and birthing centers may have machines you can use, however you are often not admitted to either until you are in active labor when it is too late to begin using TENS.

Further recommendations from experts

  • If you’re interested in TENS, ask your midwife to show you how it works and learn how to use it in the later months of your pregnancy
  • To prepare the woman, and her birth partner, for labor and delivery, attending maternity preparation classes tends to lessen the woman’s anxiety and often reduces her need for drugs to relieve pain during birth
  • Keep using your TENS for at least an hour to give you body time to build up endorphins in response to the stimulation. Don’t give up straight away, even if you think the machine isn’t doing anything
  • To ensure the pads have good contact with your back, take the pads off every three hours and apply them with gel
  • Moving around during labor helps women feel more in control and can enhance the effect of TENS


Because TENS is an electrical device, users – especially pregnant women – must be aware of common precautions.

These precautions are not an exhaustive list and please consult with a medical professional before using TENS because it is not suitable for every type of pain or condition, and must be considered on an individual basis.

  • TENS should not be used prior to the 37th week of your pregnancy unless advised by your doctor, physical therapist
  • If you have a pacemaker, or another type of electrical or metal implant in your body, TENS may not be safe for you and should not be used without first seeking advice from a medical professional
  • People with epilepsy or a heart problem should speak to their doctor before using a TENS machine
  • Ensure the machine is turned off before applying or removing the electrode pads
  • TENS does not complete eradicate labor pains and has varying results


When preparing for childbirth, women have a range of options when it comes pain management. In order to find the right solution for your body and baby, speak to your midwife or doctor to determine what treatments and solutions are available.

If you are planning or would like to have a natural or drug-free childbirth, keeping the pain manageable and safely delivering the baby are important concerns.

Many experts and women agree that TENS safely provides a natural alternative to birthing pains. By sending a an electrical pulse that reduces pain signals to your brain, sources believe TENS is safe for babies and doesn’t produce any after-effects like drugs.

Like all treatments, TENS does have disadvantages and is not appropriate for all people. If you are considering this option for your birth, be sure to speak to medical experts to get relevant information, guidance and recommendations based on your situation and medical history to ensure whether TENS could be an appropriate choice you.


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  3. BabyCenter (see footnote 2)
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  28. BabyCenter (see footnote 26)
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  31. NHS choices (see footnote 30)
  32. Physiotherapy Department, King Edward Memorial Hospital (see footnote 4)
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