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Pain management with TENS

Last Modified: 2/05/2020


Strains, sprains and chronic conditions can be debilitating. When our daily lives are disrupted due to pain or injury, it’s hard not to go in search of a remedy. Over-the-counter pain medication may offer some relief, but what if you need something more? Kyle Whonsetler, athletic trainer, Parkview Sports Medicine explains what a TENS unit is and how it can be beneficial when utilized for pain management.

How does a TENS unit work?

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit, is a small portable electrical stimulation device that can be used to treat chronic or acute pain. It works by sending an electrical current between two electrodes while using the nerve tissue as a conductor.

What does a TENS unit do to the nerves and tissues?

When using a TENS device, the gate control theory best explains how electrical stimulation can relieve pain. According to this theory, both pain and non-painful impulses are sent to the brain, but before they reach their destination they must travel through many types of nerves and areas referred to as “gates”.

The gates control which impulses can pass through to the brain, but because one nerve can’t carry two impulses at the same time, the stronger, non-painful impulse wins, thus blocking the pain signal. A TENS device achieves this by continuously stimulating the nerve tissue with non-painful impulses, controlling the “gates” and causing the nerves to adapt to the overstimulation by becoming less sensitive to pain.

What are some benefits of using TENS treatment?

TENS treatments ultimately cause patients to feel less pain in their affected areas. This allows them to complete tasks or perform activities they were previously unable to do because of the amount of pain they were experiencing.

What conditions or injuries are commonly treated with a TENS device?

In the world of athletics, TENS treatments are typically utilized for muscle strains, ligament sprains and tendinitis. TENS treatments can also be used to treat chronic conditions like neuropathy or fibromyalgia.

How are TENS units used in athletics?

As an athletic trainer in the collegiate setting, we have a wide variety of therapies we use to treat injured athletes. There are several TENS units in our office to treat common athletic injuries like sprains, strains and tendinitis. TENS units are also beneficial when traveling with a team because they’re small, portable and can provide much-needed relief after a competition when our resources are limited.

Can people use TENS units on their own?

Yes, people can use them on their own, however, it’s always best to check with a health care provider before starting any electrical stimulation therapy.

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