What is a TENS unit?

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) Therapy

After a car accident, slip and fall or any kind of injury, physical therapists will often apply a TENS unit on or around the area eliciting the most pain. TENS is a drug-free and non-invasive pain control and therapy remedy. TENS stands for "transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation." In essence it involves placing multiple electrodes that transmits a pain-free low-level electrical charge and may result in the involuntary contracting / twitching of a small segment of muscle or a tingling feeling in the same area.

TENS therapy is used in acute and chronic pain conditions to alleviate muscle spasm and to reduce pain by blocking pain signals to the brain, releasing natural painkillers, decrease a nerve’s natural sensitivity to pain and aiding in the body’s healing process in conjunction with other therapies. TENS units are used to treat both nerve and muscle pain. After a car accident or slip and fall almost all of my clients immediately start with TENS therapy (in addition to other modalities/therapies).

TENS units have adjustable voltage to allow for different intensities. TENS units are also extremely portable. So while you may start receiving TENS therapy in your doctor’s office as part of your therapy, the small units can be purchased to use at home.

How much does a TENS unit cost?

With a prescription from your pain management doctor, health insurance may cover most or all of the costs of the unit. Out of pocket costs for TENS units range from $100 to $800 depending on the age and sophistication of the TENS unit.

What are the risks involved with TENS therapy?

There are very few risks involved with using a TENS unit. They are deemed very safe by the medical community and are utilized by chiropractors and medical doctors. Of course, the TENS unit needs to be used properly. If not used properly, TENS therapy can result in electrical burns (usually minor) and skin irritations. The risks are substantially higher for those who are seizure prone, have a pacemaker installed or are pregnant (although pregnant woman can use TENS units under medical supervision). But otherwise, there is no real way to overdose on TENS therapy and there is a very low incidence of negative side effects.

The only controversy surrounding TENS is how it actually works (there are multiple and competing theories) and even whether it actually works. Some studies suggest that TENS therapy can be beneficial and helpful.  Others suggest that TENS is no better than a placebo. Many doctors will prescribe TENS units because so many patients anecdotally indicate that it resulted in diminished pain. Since the therapy is safe there seems to be little reason not to try. I can also attest that almost every chiropractor and physical therapist I know will incorporate TENS therapy in my injured client's treatment regimen.

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