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9 Facts: What is a TENS Unit?

Published October 19, 2017

Photo Credit: Amazon

Have you guys heard about the TENS unit?

Maybe you remember a recent Q&A where Jenifer Kain Kilgore told us she would rock hers at a law office where she worked.

“I was constantly wearing devices to the office. I would always wear my TENS unit,” Kilgore said. “It’s a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a back pain treatment that uses low-voltage electric current to relieve pain in a small battery-operated device.”

“They would see these contraptions and me limping around, so it was always a topic of discussion,” the Wear, Tear, and Care blogger added. “I mean, they would joke about it sometimes, which I secretly didn't like but never in a mean way.”

So if you're completely unfamiliar with what a TENS unit is or even if you know a little bit, we’re here so you can know a lot.

Here are 9 facts you need to know about the TENS unit

What is TENS therapy?

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a treatment that employs low-voltage electrical current for pain relief. You use TENS therapy for any chronic pain condition by turning on a small, battery-operated device —around the size of a pocket radio. Ordinarily, you connect two electrodes, which are wires that conduct electrical current, from the machine onto your skin. And, bam — pain relief.

OK. We got that. So, how does the TENS unit specifically work?

That relief is possible because the device stimulates our bodies natural set of painkillers, similar to how pharmaceutical medications work (endorphins and encephalins), which reduces our sense of pain.

“The nerves meet the electrodes that are on the device and you stick onto your skin,” Kilgore explained. “The theory is that electricity hooks into that big cluster of nerves and activates your endogenous opioid system. We all have this natural opioid system already in our bodies. By activating this, you are creating your own system of painkillers. Within 15 minutes, you begin creating your own pain blockers.”

How do you use a TENS machine?

You begin by placing the unit's electrodes onto your skin then powering the device to a low setting and gradually increasing it until the sensation feels strong but comfortable. It's user-friendly. If that pins and needle feeling arises or you feel uncomfortable, decrease the settings slightly. Turn the TENS unit off once you're done and remove the electrodes from your skin.

How do you apply the electrodes to your skin?

Diagram shows different electrode points on human body.Photo Credit:

Check out the above diagram (paired with the video below) as a tool to assist you in applying your TENS unit. Typically, where your pain is felt, is where you would want to apply the device. There are some exceptions so it's best to use this info as a guide. If you discuss this therapy with your physician, they should be able to help you further.

How long should a TENS machine be used for?
The TENS machine will start to work straight away. You will need to use the device for approximately 30 minutes in order for it to reach its maximum effect. It will last nearly 30 minutes after the TENS unit has been turned off.
“I usually wear the TENS on occasions when my back pain is truly escalating and refuses to level off,” Kilgore shared.

How long will it take for the TENS unit to begin working?
The TENS unit can be utilized for as long as required, predominantly people use it for 30 minutes at a time or up to 2 hours, multiple times a day, if necessary.

But seriously — do TENS machines actually work?
TENS machines are thought to affect the way pain signals are sent to the brain. Nerve pain signals reach the brain via nerves and the spinal cord.
TENS units are thought to influence the way pain signals are transmitted to our brains.
It's been a remedial staple throughout the physical therapy and chronic pain arena for years (literally). There are many manufacturers of the TENS units on the market today. It has a tremendous backing of followers, both medical professionals, and patients alike.
Plus, Kilgore loves hers. "The TENS is keeping me at a functioning level, considering I am backing off the Lyrica," she detailed.

Will the TENS unit be noticeable under clothing?
Great question and who better to answer than someone who actually uses it. “I’m a huge advocate of clothing camouflage,” Kilgore advised.

TENS Unit under clothing is not noticeable.Caption: Kilgore says, “Hellooooo! (Reluctantly copyrighted by J. W. Kain.)” —as she snaps a quick mirror selfie in the bathroom.

Let's be real. “Clothing and medical devices can be hard. Even Googling it, is difficult —I had to finally search for how people hide insulin pumps,” Kilgore pointed out. “Those are generally smaller than TENS devices, but the principle is the same.”

Showing her connected TENS unit underneath her clothes.Caption: Kilgore admits, “Those shirts can hide a lot. (Deviously copyrighted by J. W. Kain.) — as she shows us what's underneath.

“Sure, I’ll go into a changing room at the gym in order to place the electrodes on my back, but then I’ll walk out in my pants and bra to the main locker room, my back brace fully visible, my wire and electrodes exposed,” she maintained. “I see people glancing at me, trying to be subtle while they dry their hair and sneak glances in the mirror. It doesn’t bother me anymore.”
And it shouldn't bother you either. “This is me. This is what I need to do,” Kilgore concluded. “So I put on my shirt, throw on a cardigan, and start my day.”

If you want more, head over to the Original TENS Unit to get your very own —like right now: and if you spend more than $80, you get free shipping. What are you waiting for?

Updated: February 12, 2020

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