TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) is a therapy that uses low-level electrical currents to alleviate pain. A TENS unit is a small device that delivers the current to your nerves. This low-level current can help block or change your perception of pain.

Lower Back Physical Therapy with TENS Electrode Pads, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. Electrodes onto Patient's Lower Back

TENS may help relieve pain for some people and may be effective for a variety of pain conditions, including:

  • Acute pain: Surgery, childbirth, or injuries.
  • Chronic pain: Arthritis, low back pain, and fibromyalgia.
  • Musculoskeletal pain: Muscle pain, tendon flairups, and ligament problems.
  • Neuropathic pain: Nerve pain caused by damage to the nerves.

How does Electrical Nerve Stimulation Work?

While exactly how a TENS unit alleviates pain is not fully understood, two main theories come close to an explanation: the “gate theory” and the “endorphin release” theory.

The Gate Theory for Pain Management

According to the Gate Control Theory, pain signals move from a body’s periphery (such as injured tissues) to the brain via nerve fibers. These pain signals can be controlled or stopped by other signals. The “gate” in this theory refers to a theoretical neural mechanism in the spinal cord that can open and close to allow or inhibit the transmission of pain signals to the brain.

The idea is that electrical signals from a TENS unit act as the trigger for the gate. While it’s just theoretical, electrical stimulation is thought to activate large-diameter A-beta fibers, which carry non-painful sensory information. Thus, it may close the “gate,” inhibiting the transmission of pain signals.

The Endorphin Release Theory

The endorphin release theory states that electrical currents may stimulate the body to produce the body’s painkillers or endorphins. The electrical impulses are believed to trigger the release of endorphins from various sites in the body, including the brain and spinal cord, to flood the area where the TENS unit operates. Endorphins then bind to opioid receptors in the nervous system, blocking pain signals and producing analgesic effects.

TENS Therapy is a Useful Tool in Physical Therapy

While research is ongoing, TENS is generally considered safe and can be a useful tool for pain management, especially when used in conjunction with other physical therapies.

For questions about how TENS therapy can help you, contact STARS today to discuss your situation.


Additional Resources