Q. My friend told me about a TENS unit she uses for her back pain. What is a TENS unit, and will it work for me?
A. TENS is short for transcutaneous (trans-kew-tay-nee-us) (across the skin) electrical nerve stimulation. TENS uses a small, pocket-sized electrical stimulation unit. It can be used up to 24 hours a day if needed to help control pain. It is usually issued by a physical therapist (PT), but only if you have not found other ways to control your pain. Also, a prescription from your doctor is required for you to use one of these units on your own.
TENS treatment stimulates your nerves by sending a small electrical current gently through your skin. Some people say it feels sort of like a massage on their skin. Electrical stimulation can ease pain by sending impulses that your brain feels instead of pain. Two respected scientists discovered a theory, called the Gate Theory. It says that when you feel a sensation other than pain, like rubbing, massage, or even a mild electrical impulse, your spinal column will actually "close the gate" and not let pain impulses pass to your brain. In the case of electrical stimulation, the electrical impulses speed their way across your skin and onto your central nervous system much faster than pain. By getting there first, the electrical information "closes the gate" to pain, blocking its passage to the brain. Once the pain eases, muscles that are in spasm can begin to relax, letting you move and exercise with less discomfort. Other settings on the unit can be used to help your body release endorphins (en-dor-fins). Endorphins are natural chemicals produced by your body that can lower the sensation of pain for up to eight hours at a time.
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