Managing pain TENS
For some types of pain, Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation may help. Some people refer to it as a sort of “electrical massage."

By: Body - Injury Mitigation - 11/15/2018

A TENS system consists of a small power unit connected by wires to a pair of electrodes.  The electrodes are placed on the skin near the location of pain and deliver a mild, generally painless electric current that stimulates the muscles.  Most people experience a sensation of tingling and warmth during TENS treatments.  This stimulation is thought to interfere with pain signals by sending more "traffic" that overrides them before they reach the brain.  It also is thought to stimulate production of endorphins—the body's natural painkillers—during treatment sessions.

Use And Effectiveness With Pain

TENS is a general treatment for multiple pain syndromes to include neuropathic pain, phantom limb pain, post-surgical pain, and chronic musculoskeletal pain due to arthritis or other injuries.  1, 2 It provides short-term relief but very little long-term benefit. Research studies have found:

  • A few TENS sessions per day can sometimes be helpful for neuropathic pain and stump/phantom pain.3, 4

  • It also can improve the effects of pain medications, allowing some people to reduce their drug dosage.5

  • TENS sometimes can help with post-surgery pain, decreasing the need for pain medication.6

  • TENS can provide short-term relief for chronic pain and arthritis pain, but evidence as to its effectiveness is still mixed.7, 8

  • Research to date suggests that TENS isn't likely to provide significant relief from low-back pain.9, 10

For more information about TENS, visit the American Cancer Society web page and this Nursing Times article.  Although TENS units are available "over the counter," always consult your healthcare provider before buying and using one.


According to FDA and the American Cancer Society, TENS is generally safe.  However, the electrodes can cause irritation or small burns if the power is too high or if you have sensitive skin.  Once you get a TENS unit, consult a physical therapist, healthcare provider, or other professional to learn how to use it and where to place the electrodes.  Further cautions should be noted:

  • TENS electrodes cannot be used on certain parts of the body, such as near the eyes, on the front of the neck, on open wounds or infections, near tumors, over a pregnant belly, or on the genitals.

  • TENS is not advised for people with pacemakers, implantable cardiac defibrillators, or other implanted devices.

  • People with epilepsy or undiagnosed pain also might want to avoid using TENS.


Given the amount of amputations, nerve damage, and other chronic pain conditions in the military, TENS is an option worth considering for pain relief both on the battlefield and at home.  TENS is being used more often within DoD at all levels of care, but VHA has been slow to adopt TENS.

Despite the lack of evidence to support generalized use, TENS reportedly does work for some people.  The method has few side effects and might help relieve neuropathic/phantom pain and chronic pain.

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