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Tens or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation units are small machines or devices that use batteries to produce electric current to be transmitted to the skin and tissue. These are mainly used for pain management because the current they emit blocks pain signals from reaching the brain, and stimulate the production of the body’s natural painkillers. However, how long to use a tens unit for this purpose?
As they say, everything in excess would inevitably have negative effects. No matter how safe these devices claim to be, if they are not used as intended, people might still experience discomfort instead of getting relief from the pain that they are experiencing.
Below, it will be discussed in detail how to use tens units, how long to use tens unit per session, if people who experience chronic pain can use them long-term, and the effects of misusing these devices.
Types of Tens Machines
There are three main types of tens machines—conventional, high-intensity, and pens or percutaneous electrical nerve stimulators. Conventional tens units are those that give out low intensity, high-frequency current. Since it does not provide high-intensity current, its effects are immediate but do not last long. Thus, it can be used for longer periods per session (i.e., up to an hour).
On the other hand, high-intensity tens units can only be used up to 20 minutes since it gives out acupuncture-like stimulation. This kind of stimulation feels uncomfortable for some people, and may even cause discomfort instead of pain relief.
Both of these types of tens unit use lead wires and pre-gelled electrode pads to transmit the current from the machine to the skin and tissues of the affected areas. These two are the most common types of tens units available on the market today.
The last type of tens is pens. This one uses needles instead of electrode pads, bypassing the skin, and transferring the current directly to the tissues of the areas in pain. It is said to be more effective because of the way it transmits the electrical signals.
Pens can only be used for a shorter period and less frequently because if not, it would be causing more pain than relieving pain since it uses needles. This type is being debated as to whether or not qualified to be called tens since it goes beyond the skin of the patient.
How Long to Use Tens Unit
The lengths of each session mentioned above are all recommendations. There are no strict rules on how long to use tens machines per session. Nevertheless, instructions on the packaging of these tens machines would say start low and slow, about 15 minutes for the first few sessions, using the lowest intensity.
The manuals also say that the length of electrotherapy sessions, the frequency of use, and intensity of the current could be modified gradually until the user achieves the level of pain relief he or she needs for his or her medical condition.
Again, these instructions are recommendations since the companies manufacturing and selling these tens devices would always prefer to be on the safe side. Most articles on the internet say that these devices can be used as often as needed and as long as needed for the following reasons:
- Tens machines do not require the users to take in anything. It does not change anything with the body and only sends electrical signals to mess up the sending of pain signals to the brain. Unlike painkillers, there is no “overdose” when using a tens machine.
- Using tens units is not invasive. The conventional type and high-intensity type of these devices only reach the skin of the user. The physical device and its peripherals do not go beyond that (except for pens).
- There are no clear research results that can show that a person who has used tens machines for extended periods or for long-term has become overdosed or addicted to it. There is also no evidence that using tens frequently can cause other health problems aside from the ones the patient already has.
Positive and Negative Effects of Using Tens Units
The positive effect of using tens units is relief from pain. This happens in two ways. First, the current that the machine emits blocks the pain signal from reaching the part of the brain that is responsible for telling the self that parts of the body are aching. Secondly, the current prompts the body to produce its natural painkiller called endorphin.
Other positive effects of using tens machines are improved blood circulation on the affected areas, and faster healing of wounds and bruises because of this improvement in the flow of oxygenated blood.
Nevertheless, one should remember to give the skin a break from the pre-gelled self-adhering electrode pads. The skin needs to breathe every once in a while. The only problem that people who use tens machines too frequently and for too long experience is that, sometimes, their skin experience irritation.
In addition, it is equally important to know the real cause of the pain. The root problem must be addressed to make sure that the health and life of the user are not put at risk. Using tens machines is not a cure for anything. It is only a temporary relief from pain. The disease will not go away no matter how often or how long a patient uses tens machines unless he or she gets it addressed properly together with doctors.
How to Use a Tens Unit to Avoid Negative Effects
There are a lot of products on the market to address this. There are hypoallergenic tens electrode pads that are specifically made for sensitive skin. It is also important that the skin is cleaned properly before and after each electrotherapy session.
Before applying the electrode pads onto the skin, the area must be cleaned with soap and water, then dried. Avoid using alcohol as this will overdry the skin. As needed, the hair in the area could also be removed. This would make the electrotherapy session more effective since the pre-gelled electrode pads will also stick better onto the skin.
After the session, patients with sensitive skin would apply lotion to the area. Those who experience reddening of the skin and irritations also use other topical medication.
Tens units can be used anytime, anywhere. They can be used as long as the user feels the need for pain relief. However, it must be remembered that this device is not a cure, but only relief and that the skin must be prepared properly to prevent irritations.