Before I got pregnant with my first child, I had never heard of a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulator, or TENS, unit. I was determined to move through my pregnancy, labor, and delivery as intervention-free as possible, so I soon learned about different methods. Despite needing fertility drugs to conceive, I wanted everything else to be as natural as possible, so I decided to birth through a birthing center. The center connected me with a massage therapist, who also specialized in using a TENS unit, which I used at the end of my pregnancy and while I was in labor.
TENS Units and How They Work
A TENS unit is a piece of equipment designed to help with pain relief. It sends electrical pulses through the skin to help start the body’s painkillers, and it feels like your skin is intensely tingling.1 It can release substances, such as endorphins, to stop pain signals in the brain. The unit is battery-powered and involves two electrodes stuck to the skin of the lower back. The amount of electricity can also be adjusted for each patient.
When I had this done, the person administering it would turn it up and then back it down depending on how I felt. She only kept it at a level with which I was comfortable.
Benefits of TENS Units
The first time I experienced a TENS unit, I was almost 41 weeks pregnant with my first baby. I had experienced contractions for about 12 hours before they disappeared. I was distraught and frustrated. My midwife suggested using a TENS unit to see if it would help jumpstart labor again. My massage therapist came to my house and administered this process.
Here are some of the ways that using this unit can be helpful:
Stimulating Labor (In My Case, at Least)
Within about four hours, I started having contractions again. I was so excited and attributed them coming back that quickly to using this unit. While my experience was positive, there is no conclusive evidence of a TENS unit inducing labor. I just felt relieved that my contractions returned. There has not been much research done on a TENS unit in labor induction, but I trusted my midwife and was willing to try almost anything to get my contractions back.
In terms of labor, TENS units have been used since the 1970s. A review conducted by researchers in the Cochrane Collaboration found 19 different studies on the effect of a TENS unit in labor.2 Pain experienced during labor is complex, varies significantly between women, and involves cognitive, physiological, and psychological factors. Because women are so different, it is difficult to tell how one will react, but it may help while in labor.
I had a difficult labor in the birth center, and by the time I hit about 18 hours or so, I needed some relief. Not wanting to go to a hospital at that point, we reached out to my massage therapist once again to administer the TENS device. I felt exhausted and had been in so much pain. We were hopeful that the unit would help me again and help me get through labor to deliver a healthy baby.
It does not require any injections or medications. However, if the TENS unit does not work for you, you can always try other methods.
Safe (If After 37 Weeks of Pregnancy)
It will not harm you or your baby after this point in pregnancy. Before 37 weeks has not been studied.
Versatile and Easy To Use
You can move around and use it at home while in early labor.
Risks and Side Effects of a TENS Unit
There are also some issues and side effects that a TENS unit can cause:
It May Not Work for Everyone
According to the studies researched by the Cochrane Collaboration, when the TENS is attached to the lower back, it probably makes little to no difference in the number of women who were satisfied with pain relief. On the other hand, it probably reduces the number of women in severe pain and increases the number satisfied with pain relief when attached to acupuncture points.2
It Can Be Really Uncomfortable
My second experience with the unit was not positive. Instead of the electric pulses bringing relief, it just made me more uncomfortable. The combination of the pulses with my contractions was unbearable. It does not work for everyone. For me, it made things worse, but for some women, it can help. It depends on your circumstances and your body’s reaction.
Some people may be allergic to the adhesive on the pad. This allergic reaction can cause your skin to become irritated and red.
Who Should Not Use a TENS Unit
There are a few cases where a TENS unit may not be appropriate:
Pregnant Women Under 37 Weeks
It is relatively safe to try, but you should not use it before 37 weeks. This gestation period has not been tested, so we do not know what possible effects it has on unborn babies this young.
People With Certain Conditions
You should not use a TENS unit if you have had cancer in the last five years, have undiagnosed pain, deep vein thrombosis, thrombophlebitis, or a bleeding disorder. If you have epilepsy, do not apply electrodes to the shoulders, head, or neck. Do not apply it to the chest if you have heart disease, arrhythmias, or heart failure. You should not apply pads above implanted devices.3
Where To Get a TENS Unit
There are many ways to get a TENS unit for treatment:
From a Professional
If you want to have someone else administer the unit for you, you can connect with someone who does these services. In my case, it was a massage therapist. It will depend on who is available in your area.
There are quite a few choices on Amazon for TENS units. There is a large price range, so it depends on exactly what features you are seeking.
Local Pharmacies and Retailers
Your hospital or physician may let you rent a TENS unit. This option may be ideal if you want to try something out before deciding to buy one.
It is impossible to know if a TENS unit will help in your specific circumstances, but it is an option if you are open to it. I have had conflicting experiences with it, but I am glad that I used it and had it as an option. It is a good thing to be aware of and keep in mind, along with your other pain relief techniques.