TENS Unit for Pain Management

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: January 2023

A TENS unit is a device that some people with axial spondyloarthritis (axSpA) use to help manage their pain. It is a complementary therapy, which means it is used in addition to other treatments. TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.1

How does a TENS unit work?

The TENS unit is a small, battery-powered device that sends electrical pulses to your body through sticky pads called electrodes. These electrodes are placed on or near an area of the body with pain, like an injured muscle or joint.1

The electrical pulses sent by the TENS unit can help reduce pain by blocking nerve signals from reaching your brain. They also can help boost chemicals in your body that act as natural painkillers (endorphins) to help relieve pain naturally. Along with reducing pain, a TENS unit can improve physical function and decrease inflammation.1

TENS units are non-invasive and drug-free, so there are very few side effects. The unit is small and portable, so you can take it anywhere. The electrodes from the TENS unit are worn under clothing, giving you a discreet and convenient way to manage pain.1

How might a TENS unit help with axial spondyloarthritis pain?

Research shows that TENS units may reduce pain and improve physical function in people with axSpA. They may also help reduce inflammation and improve sleep quality for those living with this condition. However, studies about this are limited.2-4

Possible risks of using a TENS unit

TENS units are generally considered safe to use. But some people should not use a TENS unit, including:1

  • Pregnant people
  • People who have a pacemaker or other metal or electrical implant
  • People with epilepsy
  • People with bleeding problems
  • People with heart problems

Do not place the electrodes of a TENS unit over your heart, eyes, or throat. Do not use them on any area with a skin condition or active infection. Some people have irritation from the glue on the electrodes, so use caution if you have sensitive skin or allergies.1

Tips for using a TENS unit

Always follow the instruction manual for your TENS unit, and discuss any concerns or questions you have with your doctor. Before use, check that the electrodes are positioned correctly and that the settings are appropriate for your needs.1,5

Other tips include:1,5

  • Keep your skin clean and dry when using a TENS unit.
  • Avoid using lotions, oils, and creams before applying the electrodes, as it can reduce their effectiveness.
  • Make sure to replace the electrodes every 20 to 30 sessions or when they start to lose their stickiness.
  • Do not leave the TENS unit on for more than 30 minutes at a time, as overuse can cause skin irritation.
  • Increase the intensity of the electrical pulses gradually over several sessions until you find what works best for your condition.

Using a TENS unit can be a great way to manage chronic or acute pain from axSpA. Consider combining it with other treatments, such as physical therapy and medicines, for best results.2

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