Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)

The use of low-voltage electrical current passed through the skin to provide pain relief. Two electrodes connected to a small battery-powered machine are placed on the skin in the affected area, and an electrical current is passed between them. Some researchers believe the painkilling effect of TENS can be explained by the Gate-Control Theory of Pain: As pain signals travel from damaged tissues toward the brain, they encounter “nerve gates” in the spinal cord that either open to let them reach the brain or close to prevent them from reaching the brain. Nerve impulses created by TENS may activate sensory nerves that actually override pain signals and close the gate. TENS also may stimulate the release of the body’s own natural painkilling substances, such as endorphins. TENS has been used to treat back pain, neck pain, tendonitis, bursitis and joint and muscle pain associated with osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. Although many people find relief from TENS, its effectiveness has yet to be proven in rigorous clinical trials. TENS appears to be safe if used correctly.

Robert S. Dinsmoor is a medical writer and editor based in Massachusetts.

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