TENS machines are a fantastic and affordable option if you are looking for drug-free relief for lower or upper back pain. You may have heard of TENS units in relation to drug-free pain relief when going into labour, as you can start practising using your TENS machine around 37 weeks into your pregnancy.
However, if you are suffering from back pain after your pregnancy or are just looking for a solution for a bad back, then a TENS machine might be something to consider. In this article, we look at what a TENS machine is and how it works, the best TENS machines for back pain, and how to apply it for the best results.
What is a TENS machine?
A TENS machine delivers tiny electric shocks to the body for a natural form of pain relief. The electrical pulses interfere with the pain messages being sent to the brain, which is why a TENS machine can also be an effective form of pain relief during the early stages of labour. It is not recommended that you use a TENS machine during pregnancy. However, it is an excellent way of administering pain relief without the use of medications after you give birth.
How do you use a TENS machine for back pain?
Firstly, follow the instructions according to the model you are using to use the device properly. Generally, you will start by placing the electrode patches on clean skin at the location of the pain in your back. The patches are usually attached to the machine with wires, and depending on the type of machine, you may have to use conductive gel.
The machine will usually start pulsing at around 80Hz. If your pain sharpens, you can then increase the pulses. After some time, you may experience ‘accommodation’, which is when your body adjusts to the pain, and you can then increase the pulses again.
You can choose to use either two or four electrode pads depending on how large the area of pain is that you are tending to. If your lower back pain is on one side, try using two electrodes. Place one pad at the top point of the pain and one pad below (about one inch apart). Try to place the pads on the muscle, as opposed to directly onto your backbone.
How much do they cost?
TENS machines used to be very expensive, but you can now pick one up for around £50 or less online, or at a pharmacy.
AUVON Dual Channel TENS Machine
This dual-channel TENS device has separate modes and intensities for channel A and channel B. It is safe to use, non-invasive and a drug-free method of pain relief. The included self-stick electro pads can provide performance for up to 20 to 30 uses with 2mm pin connectors.
Modes: 20 pre-set modes such as hammering, kneading and shiatsu to help relieve pain associated with aching and fatigued muscles in the upper back, shoulders and lower back.
Dual-channel: The dual channels mean you could choose Acupuncture mode in channel A with an intensity level of 5 for your shoulder. Meanwhile, on channel B, you can program the tapping mode with the intensity set to level 12 on your lower back for back pain relief as an electric muscle stimulator.
Electrode pads: The shaped 2-inch pads are recommended for more compact pain areas like the knees or elbows. The bigger 4-inch reusable patches are for larger areas such as the back.
Battery: Yes, 10 hours of usage using the rechargeable internal lithium battery.
What it comes with: 1 x Dual Channel TENS Machine, 4 x 2" Square Electrode Pads, 4 x Large Rectangle 2"x4" Pads, 2 x Lead Wires, 1 x USB cable, 1 x User Manual, 1 x Pad Holder, 1 x Pouch.
Review: "Beautifully neat looking little machine. I sussed out how to use it in 5 minutes.l used it twice on my terribly painful neck and shoulder and actually managed to sleep on my painful side for the first time in weeks. My husband sticks the pads on my back and shoulder area, and l keep it on all day.....turning it on at least three times during the day. So far, so good, and hopefully, this will give me some pain relief finally!"
Beurer EM49 Digital TENS Machine
Best TENS machine for modes and programmes
The double channel TENS device from Beurer has a large backlit LCD-display which shows you exactly how to position the electrodes pads on your body for maximum effect. It also displays the intensity setting and treatment timer function that you can program from 5 to 100 minutes.
Modes: 70 pre-set programmes with 64 expertly designed modes and six customisable programmes, all with adjustable intensity. It also comes with 20 pre-set EMS massage programmes to release tension.
Dual-channel: Two separately adjustable channels with 50 intensity levels.
Electrode pads: Includes four self-adhesive electrodes (45 x 45 mm)
Battery: Yes, this device is battery powered with 3x 1.5v AAA batteries (included)
What it comes with: Beurer EM49 Digital EMS/TENS Unit, 1 Belt Clip, 2 Connection Cables, 4 Adhesive Electrodes (45 x 45 mm), 3 x AAA Batteries, an instruction manual.
Review: "This an excellent two-channel TENS and EMS machine. So easy to use even if you don’t have the manual on hand, the screen with the human body will indicate what areas and what programs to select. This machine is an amazing value for money, especially compared to the Compex machines. Small, light and if you use rechargeable AAA batteries, you don’t have to worry about a built-in battery ever failing."
prorelax EMS u0026 TENS machine
Best TENS machine for TENS function and EMS functions
This natural form of pain relief is proven to relieve all kinds of pain and ache, reduce spasms and assist the healing process of a bad back. This TENS unit function provides natural pain relief while the EMS unit trains and strengthens muscles by increasing the local blood circulation.
Modes: 8 modes
Dual-channel: It has a dual function. The TENS function works for pain, and the EMS function builds muscle.
Electrode pads: Includes four self-adhesive electrodes.
Battery: Yes, it comes with a rechargeable battery that can be charged through the mains with a USB charger.
What it comes with: 1 prorelax TENS + EMS DUO comfort, two leads wires, four reusable electrode pads, one clip-holder, one storage bag, 1 USB charger, a quick start guide, instruction manual.
Review: "I have used a tens machine for years, and have just replaced my old "Boots" one with a new Prorelax tens and ems machine.I was thrilled when I first took it out of the box because it is light in weight and very slim and pleasing to the eye. It is very easy to use, with instruction books and helpful tips. The pain relief this little machine gives is noticeable within 15 minutes, and you forget that you are wearing it. I have been so pleased with this product that I am about to purchase the Prorelax accessories pack."
The TENS Company Med-Fit TENS Machine
Best TENS machine for easy use and massage mode
This machine comes with a large and clear digital display that is easy to use when setting your desired frequency, intensity, duration and modes.
Modes: 5 modes
Dual-channel: It has a dual function - the TENS function and EMS function.
Electrode pads: Includes four 5x5 cm self-adhesive electrodes.
Battery: Yes, it comes with 9V PP3 battery.
What it comes with: 1 Med-Fit 3 TENS Unit, one pack 5x5cm electrodes, two patient leads, one 9V PP3 battery, one instruction manual and a patient guide to TENS.
Review: "I bought this particular machine Tens machine for my mother in law as she suffers with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I checked out all the Tens machines on Amazon and settled on this one as I think she would find this one the easiest to use at her age. She has reported that after using the Tens Machine, her pain is nearly completely gone. Every time she feels the pain coming back to, she pops it back on to try and stop the pain before it gets too bad."
Med-Fit® Wireless Mini TENS machine
Best wireless TENS machine
This mini TENS machine is a great wire-free option compared to the others listed. It comes with one large wireless pad that can be applied to the lower back and two smaller pads for your upper back or other parts of your body. There is only one mode, so if you are looking for a quick fix that is wire-free, this would be a good option for you.
Modes: The mini TENS machine runs on a pre-set programme; just switch it on and go.
Electrode pads: Comes with one large back pad for lower back pain treatment and two small electrode pads.
Battery: Yes, up to 8 hours use from a single charge.
What it comes with: TENS unit, one Butterfly electrode, two 5cm round self-adhesive electrodes, one AC adaptor with lead and a user manual.
Review: "I already have a machine from the same company, which works extremely well to control my severe backache. However, the wires were a nuisance at times, and when bending, the unit sometimes fell off my trouser waistband. I love my neat, wireless machine, although I find that so far, having had it for just a couple of weeks, it doesn’t remove my pain totally. However, I’m gradually moving the strength up and still have a few clicks to go. I would happily recommend this wireless Tens machine to anyone who suffers from pain."
Pain Doctor Conductive Gel
The conductive gel will improve conductivity for best stimulation and results. These 100ml bottles can be used for use with TENS machines and can be attached to the electrodes pads when they have lost their self-adhesive properties.
Do TENS machines work?
The Endorphin Release theory suggests that TENS works by sending electric current that only focuses on the sensory nerve endings that control pain. These currents that pass to the brain releases endorphins, a hormone known as the body’s natural painkiller. These endorphins act exactly like prescription drugs, but without the side effects.
TENS can be used to alleviate pain caused by a wide range of problems like back pain, joint pains, arthritis, sciatica, nerve pain, bone pain, neck pain, sports injuries, muscle pain, and even period pain. Although sometimes, it is also used during labour as a method of pain relief.
How long does pain relief last?
The duration of pain relief after using a TENS machine can vary. However, some people report that their pain returns as soon as they switch off the device. Other users state that their pain does not return for a while after, such as for 24 hours or more.
Here is a video from Ask Doctor Jo's YouTube channel on how to apply a TENS machine unit for back pain.