Blog Post

TENS Machines are Safe to Use

(Image courtesy of Wikicommons, Yeza, CC BY-SA-4.0)

PW writes: "Could you please tell me if the Tens Machine is any way a New Age modality?  I have severe chronic pain, and it has been suggested that I use this, but I have felt instinctively that it is New Age and I thought I once saw you wrote or said something about this."

The TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine is not New Age. In fact, it is one of the most commonly used forms of electroanalgesia (the use of electrical stimulation to ease pain). There are hundreds of clinical reports to support its effectiveness for various types of conditions such as lower back pain, myofascial and arthritic pain, post-operative pain and even things like bladder incontinence. However, because many of these studies were uncontrolled, the treatment is considered to be "thin" on empirical evidence and debate continues as to its degree of effectiveness.

For those of you who do not know what the TENS machine does, it is a small battery-operated unit that is connected to the skin using several electrodes and pads (see photo). Generally speaking, the machine delivers either a high frequency (which is more than 50 Hz) with an intensity that is below motor contraction, or a low frequency (less than 10 Hz) that produces motor contraction.

People have been using electrical current to treat pain for hundreds of years, with various electrostatic devices in use during the 16th to the 18th centuries when they were used for headaches. Ben Franklin was a proponent for this method of pain relief. I also came across an interesting story about John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and a proponent of natural methods of healing, who believed "shocking" could help all kinds of problems, from blindness to burns, toothaches to ulcers. During the Victorian era, the devices became so popular a huge cottage industry grew around it with factories mass producing "boxed electrical shock machines" for anyone who wished to use them. Of course, this industry was riddled with quackery and the usual outrageous claims.

The first modern device was patented in the U.S. in 1974. It was implantable and was used to treat epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and other neurological disorders.

The TENS machine is considered to be safe to use.

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