In this article you’ll find out exactly what TENS units are used for.
You’ll also find out whether studies, users, and professional bodies recommend the use of TENS for particular pains and conditions.
Please be aware that this is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and does not constitute medical or other professional advice.
An analysis of a nationwide database conducted in 2014 found that there were positive trends for TENS therapy on chronic lower back pain patients.
For example, the data showed that TENS unit users with back pain were significantly less likely to visit hospital than those who didn’t receive treatment. It was also found that they were less likely to require back surgery.
Currently there is not enough research for the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to recommend TENS treatment.
A study conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that TENS therapy acted effectively as a placebo however the findings suggested that the health benefits didn’t extend further than that.
Whilst some users report little success for their back pain, there are many others that report favorable results.
The determining factors seemed to be the length of time used, how the TENS treatment was introduced (i.e. starting slow) and the correct positioning of the electrodes.
The charity BackCare, suggests TENS treatment for lower back pain in particular, when used alongside other treatments, following positive research results.
Though the advice is mixed, the conclusion appears to be that there simply isn’t enough evidence to make a definite decision.
For example, research published by the Oxford Academic, that looked closely at chronic lower back pain sufferers, found the results to be inconclusive with further research needed.
Generally it’s not recommended to use a TENS unit directly on the neck, however electrodes can be placed on the top of the back or on the shoulders near the neck to provide relief.
The NHS recommends TENS as a treatment to help reduce muscle tension and spasms, as long as guidance is followed in terms of electrode placement.
A study in 2010 looked at how TENS therapy could be used to help treat neck pain in patients with musculoskeletal diseases.
Subjects were given one hour of treatment each week, with 73% of respondents reporting a marked improvement in their pain.
It was noted in the study that those with mild pain were more responsive to the treatment than those experiencing severe pain.
Research has shown TENS treatment to be effective in treating sciatica.
A study published in 2015 in the International Journal of Current Research and Review compared TENS with more traditional alternative treatments and found that patients using TENS therapy saw a reduction in pain as well as marked improvements in the Straight Leg Raise Test.
Pain clinics carry out TENS therapy to help patients cope with sciatic pain, and will strategically place the electrodes to target the problem area. They will also offer advice on over-the-counter unit options.
A trusted study carried out in the 1980s, yet still referenced today, was published in the US National Library of Medicine and shows that knee pain can be managed by TENS treatment, and gives patients more control over their pain management.
In terms of knee pain and knee swelling, TENS has been proven to be an effective form of treatment.
A 2016 research project conducted at a hospital in Korea found that transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation treatment decreased edema and pain significantly.
The Arthritis Foundation recommends TENS therapy as a treatment option for osteoarthritis in the knee due to positive research results.
One such systematic review of research was conducted at the Department of Orthopedics at Xiangya Hospital, China in 2015.
The review looked at 27 different trials and determined that TENS therapy did help patients manage their pain, and that the treatment was unlikely to be dangerous or have any negative side effects if used incorrectly.
Research has shown positive results in migraine patients.
A study conducted in 2014 at the Baqiyatallah University of Medical Sciences in Iran, found that regular TENS therapy positively impacted the frequency, duration and intensity of primary headaches.
In 2018 another study again showed positive results for TENS treatment.
The study published by the US National Library of Medicine reviewed four relevant studies and found that TENS treatment helped to reduce monthly headache days as well as painkiller intake.
In 2017 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration endorsed Cefaly, a new TENS product that is recommended for daily use as a preventative treatment for migraines.
Cefaly is a headband device that emits a signal that stimulates the nerve in your head that is thought to cause migraines.
There isn’t yet enough research to categorically say that TENS therapy can treat shoulder pain, however a review of all relevant research did yield positive results.
A study in 2001 for example found that TENS treatment improved movement in post-stroke shoulder pain patients. The findings also revealed that though TENS didn’t have an impact on upper limb motor recovery, it did improve humeral lateral rotation significantly.
Though research is still currently limited, users are quick to recommend the treatment as a solution to others suffering from both neck and shoulder pain.
Temporomandibular Joint Syndrome (TMJ)
Research conducted in 2017 found that TENS was highly effective in treating the pain associated with temporomandibular disorders including temporomandibular joint (TMJ) syndrome.
The study compared TENS with low-level laser therapy and found both to be effective treatments, however the follow-ups showed that TENS sustained the pain reduction for TMJ patients.
Another study which focussed specifically on TMJ compared TENS with a painkiller known as Naproxen. TENS was shown in the study to reduce the severity of pain more effectively and in some cases eliminate pain.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
A 2010 study found that TENS therapy significantly decreased the pain of those suffering from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome.
The study conducted at Hacettepe University Medical School in Turkey looked at 20 female patients and saw clearly how TENS treatment could positively impact cortical activations.
Many physical therapists are quick to recommend TENS as a treatment option to ease the pain associated with the syndrome, with users also quick to offer suggestions on what they consider to be a low-cost pain relief option.
A clinical trial published in the US National Library of Medicine, showed that TENS treatment significantly reduced the frequency, intensity and duration of headaches.
The National Headache Foundation presents TENS as a pain management solution, however they do acknowledge that research is still limited.
They also suggest that it can be used to deal with back and neck problems that could be linked to headaches.
Those who suffer from migraines have also shown improvements from TENS treatment, with a number of new treatment options available.
If you’re wondering whether to use a TENS machine for labor then it might be helpful to know that the NHS recommends it as a pain relief option for the early stages of labour or if you plan to have a home birth.
TENS hasn’t been shown to be effective during active labor, however it can be helpful during (the latter stages of) pregnancy.
A review of research in to TENS treatment during labor showed no consistent pattern to suggest it was an effective treatment, however the majority of women who used the therapy said they would use it again for a future labor.
Moms are quick to recommend TENS treatment to other women who are preparing their birth plan. Many said they felt it was more effective than gas and air, with others simply saying that it was a welcome distraction!
Many health professionals will suggest a TENS unit as an option for menstrual cramps to help manage pain with minimal side effects.
Research has shown that period pain, technically referred to as primary dysmenorrhea, can be positively impacted by TENS therapy.
The study which looked at the pain level of 122 respondents found that TENS can reduce the intensity of pain.
Women struggling with the pain of menstrual cramps have also reached out to others suffering to recommend TENS as a pain relief option.
Currently research appears to be inconclusive about the effectiveness of TENS in treating neuropathy of the feet.
However The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy recommends TENS as a treatment for foot neuropathy when combined with other treatments.
Though they feel more research is still needed, medical library, Cochrane, also suggests TENS as a treatment option.
Facial Pain – Those suffering with facial pain report varied results with TENS treatment. Treatments are typically offered by chiropractors who can carefully monitor the levels and electrode placement.
Wrinkles/Skin Firming – There is currently little evidence to suggest that TENS can have an impact on your wrinkles, and advice is clear that you should never use a TENS unit on your face.
However a research trial that hasn’t yet published results seeks to discover whether TENS therapy can give you a gentle face lift to improve overall facial appearance.
The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy do recommend TENS as a treatment for neuropathic conditions however they recommend it more as a complementary treatment with other therapies.
Research published in 2015, which looked at the effect of TENS treatment on Diabetic Peripheral Neuropathy, found it had a positive impact on neuropathic pain and though research is still limited, it continues to be recommended as a treatment for this condition.
There are a number of TENS products available that are specifically for use on the feet to target foot pain and related conditions.
Research published in the Clinical Research on Foot & Ankle in 2015 found that TENS did not impact the strength or balance of patients with foot and ankle pain, and that further research was required.
However in general TENS has been shown to have a positive effect on pain, including foot pain.
Hip pain has been proven to be effectively treated by TENS therapy following a number of positive studies, including a research project that looked at posttraumatic hip pain.
Research has also shown that TENS has a positive impact on the hip flexor, when low intensity TENS is applied, as well as the SI joint.
There is some scepticism about the research surrounding TENS for hip pain and other types of pain, due to the small sample sizes used in the studies.
However findings seem to be consistently positive with users quick to recommend TENS as an option for others struggling to cope with hip pain.
The Brain and Spine Foundation recommends TENS as a treatment option for managing nerve pain with limited side effects.
Research regarding the effectiveness of TENS therapy for nerve pain is currently inconclusive however there have been a number of studies with positive outcomes.
For example, a 2010 study showed that the medication Pregabalin was more effective when combined with TENS treatment than it was without it.
Those suffering with nerve pain also recommend TENS treatment as an alternative to medication.
Historically research has shown that TENS therapy is effective in treating muscle spasms. A study in 2000 looked at 60 patients suffering from muscle spasms. The results showed a significant decrease in the spasms as well as an improvement in their range of motion.
Another project focussed on the muscle spasms of eight patients suffering from multiple sclerosis. The study conducted at Ayrshire Central Hospital found that six of the eight patients showed a significant improvement in their spasms.
Research is still deemed inconclusive due to small sample sizes, however further studies are underway to determine its effectiveness.
Many physical therapists would recommend TENS treatment for tendonitis, particularly knee tendonitis.
Research conducted in 2015 on the Achilles tendon of rats found that TENS treatment didn’t elicit a positive response, however a study of Achilles tendonitis in humans found that TENS was effective, so research results are mixed.
Users of the site Runners World suggest a TENS machine for tendonitis, however provide mixed feedback on its effectiveness.
Arthritis Research UK recommends TENS as a treatment for arthritis, however they are quick to clarify that the research in to its effectiveness is mixed, as different forms of arthritis have different success rates.
Osteoarthritis – A review published in the British Journal of Community Nursing sought to discover whether TENS could be effective in treating osteoarthritis.
A number of studies were reviewed and found that TENS was beneficial to people with OA, however they felt further research was needed. The NHS continues to recommend TENS as a treatment option for osteoarthritis.
A systematic review of all research relating to knee osteoarthritis specifically returned an inconclusive finding, however positive results were seen in a number of studies relating to arthritic knees.
Rheumatoid Arthritis – The charity Arthritis Care recommends a TENS unit to help cope with the daily pain of rheumatoid arthritis.
A research study that focussed on rheumatoid arthritis in the hand showed that TENS did help to reduce pain intensity, however it was felt that further research was needed to provide a conclusive result.
Those suffering with the pain of rheumatoid arthritis delivered varying feedback on managing their pain with TENS, with most suggesting it was a case of careful positioning of the electrodes.
Psoriatic Arthritis – The Psoriasis and Psoriatic Arthritis Alliance suggests a TENS unit as a way to manage the daily pain of psoriatic arthritis.
Users of the forum Living with Psoriatic Arthritis offer suggestions to others about TENS therapy, reporting daily use and for many, positive results.
A systematic review of research published in 2017 determined to find out whether TENS therapy was effective in treating patients with fibromyalgia.
The review looked at eight different studies and returned an inconclusive result. The methodology used was felt to be unreliable, however overwhelmingly the results were positive and showed pain improvements for patients.
Users of the UK Fibromyalgia Forum are quick to recommend a TENS unit for the pain associated with fibromyalgia, feeling they couldn’t live their lives without it!
The NHS recommends TENS as a treatment option for a herniated disc, as does The Brazilian Association of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, who have conducted a number of studies in to the most effective treatment for a herniated disc.
The Herniated Disc Authority also suggests TENS treatment as a way of coping with daily pain, with little or no side effects, yet they do recognise that research findings remain inconclusive.
A TENS unit can do many things for your muscles, including be effective for muscle knots.
Research has even shown electric nerve stimulation to be more effective than electric muscle stimulation (EMS) at relieving pain caused by muscles knots.
Chiropractors will often recommend TENS therapy for muscle knots when administered by a physical therapist or massage therapist.
The Oxford Shoulder and Elbow Clinic recognise that there is not a singular approved treatment for frozen shoulder, and suggest TENS as one approach that patients could try.
A study conducted in India in 2011 found that TENS successfully improved the shoulder pain and improved the range of motion of people with adhesive capsulitis.
Users are quick to suggest the treatment to others who found it a good option for temporary relief from pain.
Results appear to be inconclusive about the effectiveness of TENS treatment on the symptoms of depression.
A study in 2016 which looked at the depression symptoms of patients with Subacromial Impingement Syndrome (SIS), found that TENS combined with exercise, didn’t have an impact on the depressive symptoms.
The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published an article that suggested that TENS therapy is more effective in treating the symptoms of depression than antidepressants when combined with education and music, however there is currently no research available to confirm this.
Erectile Dysfunction (ED)
There is no conclusive evidence that the use of a TENS unit can aid those with erectile dysfunction (ED) and advice is clear that electrodes should not be placed on the genitals.
However a study in 2015, which looked at erectile dysfunction in patients with spinal cord injuries, concluded that TENS treatment was an inexpensive, safe and effective treatment for the pelvic floor muscles.
TENS units are well known for their use during labor, however benefits have been seen when used in the later stages of pregnancy.
The NHS advises that a TENS unit is not used during the early stages of pregnancy, with users of the MadeForMums forum claiming that their doctor had recommended not using a unit until after 37 weeks.
Research conducted in 2012 on pregnant patients with musculoskeletal pain found that TENS had no reported side effects, however the published paper still strongly recommended seeking the guidance of your doctor before beginning any form of TENS treatment.
Physical therapists recommend a TENS machine as a treatment option for a meniscus tear.
Research in general remains inconclusive on its effectiveness due to the limited amount of data that is currently available, however users of the online community BoneSmart claim their unit helped them to manage their daily pain.
Many patients report using a TENS machine for the pain associated with nerve damage.
There is little research to draw upon to discuss the impact of the treatment on the condition, however a study in 2014 looked at nerve injury in rats and found that TENS did help to relieve chronic pain.
Rotator Cuff Injury
A systematic review of all relevant research found that TENS units were not proven to be effective for rotator cuff injury.
However the outcome seemed to stem more from the methodology used in the studies rather than the findings themselves.
Users of PhysioForum suggest a TENS unit to others suffering from tennis elbow as an effective and more affordable treatment option.
However a study in 2013 looked at using TENS as an addition to primary care treatment and concluded that TENS wasn’t effective in treating the pain associated with the condition.
A contradictory further study published in 2015, which looked at how cost-effective it would be for doctors to prescribe a TENS unit, found that TENS was effective in reducing pain.
Cleveland Clinic suggests that bursitis is one of the conditions most commonly managed with a TENS unit.
Users of the Gransnet forum report mixed effectiveness, with some feeling it didn’t offer effective pain relief.
Interestingly those with hip bursitis speak positively about a TENS unit for helping to manage daily pain.
Health clinics recommend TENS as an effective treatment for jaw pain.
As advice is clear that you should never place electrodes on your face, this should only ever be carried out by and under the supervision of a medical professional.
A study by Brazilian Oral Research backs up this recommendation as it found that TENS was effective in treating the masticatory muscles in patients with TMD, and reducing pain for patients.
Those suffering with the condition reaching out on PsychCentral found it to be an excellent interim option when waiting for surgery, as opposed to a long term solution.
Pelvic Floor Dysfunction
The Interstitial Cystitis Association recommends TENS as a treatment option for the pain associated with Pelvic Floor Dysfunction.
A research project conducted in 2017, that looked at general pelvic pain, reported that TENS can be a useful intervention.