Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is the application of a small electric current to relieve pain. It can be used in the management of some types of pain in multiple sclerosis, such as:
- dysasthetic extremity pain - the pain that is described as burning, tingling or shooting in nature;
- back pain - often caused by reduced mobility, poor posture and the use of wheelchairs and other aids;
- painful leg spasms, where anti-spasmodic medications are not tolerated.
TENS can reduce pain in the short-term but does not get rid of the pain or the underlying problem permanently. Often TENS is something that needs to be used on a long-term basis.
How TENS works
A TENS machine is a small battery operated unit that delivers a small current through electrically conductive pads that are applied to the skin. A buzzing, prickling or tingling sensation is felt when the TENS machine is switched on. It is portable and should not restrict a person's activity in any way except when showering, swimming and in some instances, when driving.
TENS machines typically have two modes:
- a continuous mode, which produces a continuous tingling sensation
- a burst mode (also known as acupuncture TENS) in which a pulsing sensation is experienced.
Although there are TENS machines that can be bought from high street chemists, ideally the machine should be demonstrated by a trained healthcare professional to determine its suitability, as well as to get the most benefit for the user. The healthcare professional will be able to advise on the most appropriate settings to use for the type of pain experienced, as well as the best position for the pads. Many pain clinics, physiotherapy departments and some GP surgeries have machines that can be borrowed or hired to determine whether TENS works for the individual before buying their own machine.
- Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair 2010;24(5):420-427. Summary Long-term TENS treatment improves tactile sensitivity in MS patients.
- Clinical Journal of Pain 2009;25(4):281-285. Summary Sensory complaints of the upper extremities in multiple sclerosis: Relative efficacy of nortriptyline and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.
- Multiple Sclerosis 2007;13(4):527-533. Summary The effects of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) on spasticity in multiple sclerosis.
- Clinical Journal of Pain 2006;22(9):812-819. Summary Efficacy of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for chronic low-back pain in a multiple sclerosis population: a randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial.
Last updated: 10 June 2014
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