How Does TENS Work?
Around 3.4 million Australians live with pain, with one in five suffering from chronic pain and 68 per cent of those being of working age. Therefore, if you or someone you love suffers from pain it’s important to know everything about all of the treatment options available, and if you’ve heard of a TENS machine like the PainPod or Hidow, but you don’t know how one works, here’s what you need to know.
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, a non-invasive treatment that offers pain relief from a variety of everyday aches and certain long-term conditions (1). It’s been a staple in physical therapy and pain clinics for decades and was the treatment of choice before painkillers, but in recent years TENS technology has been refined and made a major comeback as a valid drug-free alternative.
We feel pain when pain receptors at the source of an injury or inflammation release chemicals and send “ouch that hurts” signals to the brain via the spinal cord. There are many different types of pain. Acute pain is short-term and occurs after an accident or injury; once the injury has healed, the pain disappears. And there’s recurrent pain that occurs with your monthly period, and chronic pain resulting from a condition such as arthritis, which is both persistent and needs long-term treatment.
PainPod or Hidow machines work by flooding the nervous system with gentle electrical impulses delivered through the skin via electrodes attached to adhesive pads placed on the affected area. These pulses interfere with, and block, pain signals from travelling to the brain and stimulate the body to produce natural pain relievers called endorphins, which can provide pain relief (1).
It’s a similar process to how painkillers treat pain, but a huge tick in the “plus” column for TENS machines is that they do it without potentially serious side effects. Studies show that some of these include the long-term use of paracetamol being risky for people with high blood pressure, while non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke in people with or without heart disease or the risk factors for heart disease.
Another reason why more people are reaching for TENS machines is that access to painkillers has become increasingly difficult. In 2020 restrictions were placed on prescription opioids due to the effects of long-term use, including dependence, while in 2022 the Therapeutic Goods Administration began investigating additional restrictions on certain types of paracetamol to reduce the risk of injury and death from intentional overdoses.
Pain isn’t just physical, causing mobility issues and limiting activities; it can also impact your emotions, relationships and your mind. Additionally, it’s something that affects everyone. Take back pain, for example, the second most common reason people see their GP, with one in six Australians suffering from it, and up to 80 per cent experiencing it during their lifetime.
TENS machines are small, portable and ideal for almost everyone to use at any age, helping to manage pain relief and assist with physiotherapy. They can be used on almost any area of the body to treat injuries and everyday niggles from period pain (2) and tension headaches (3) to migraine (4) and to relieve aches and pains including a sore lower back (5). PainPod and Hidow machines also come with electrical muscle stimulation (EMS) technology which has additional functions from strengthening the muscles to improving joint pain and swelling (6).
So if you’ve tried painkillers, or you simply want a drug-free alternative to manage your pain, TENS devices tick all the right boxes. And as a bonus, they double up as a great foot massager.
For more information about the various PainPod and Hidow machines and accessories, click here.
- Vance, et al. Using TENS for pain control: the state of the evidence. Pain Management. 3: 197-209, 2014
- Barbosa Mde. Evaluation of pain thresholds across the menstrual cycle using TENS. 68(7): p. 901-8, 2013
- Classification of TENS to treat headache. 79(128): p. 37946-8, 2014
- Ellens. Peripheral neuromodulation for migraine headache. 24: p 109-17, 2011
- Guild, D.G. Mechanical therapy for low back pain. 39(3): p. 511-6, 2012
- Kwon, DR. et al. Short-term micro-current electrical neuromuscular stimulation to improve muscle function in the elderly: A randomised, double-blinded, sham-controlled clinical trial. Medicine. 96:26, 2017
- AHA Journals. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.121.056015
- TGA: https://www.tga.gov.au/news/news/nsaids-and-cardiovascular-risks-questions-and-answers