TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) is a method of electrical stimulation which primarily aims to provide a degree of symptomatic pain relief by exciting sensory nerves and thereby stimulating either the pain gate mechanism and/or the opioid system. The different methods of applying TENS relate to these different physiological mechanisms. The effectiveness of TENS varies with the clinical pain being treated, but research would suggest that when used ‘well’ it provides significantly greater pain relief than a placebo intervention. There is an extensive research base for TENS in both the clinical and laboratory settings and whilst this summary does not provide a full review of the literature, the key papers are referenced. It is worth noting that the term TENS could represent the use of ANY electrical stimulation using skin surface electrodes which has the intention of stimulating nerves. In the clinical context, it is most commonly assumed to refer to the use of electrical stimulation with the specific intention of providing symptomatic pain relief. 

Clinical use:

In order to get the maximal benefit from the modality, target the stimulus at the appropriate spinal cord level (appropriate to the pain). Placing the electrodes on either side of the lesion – or pain areas are the most common mechanism employed to achieve this. There are many alternatives that have been researched and found to be effective – most of which are based on the appropriate nerve root level :

  • Stimulation of appropriate nerve root(s)

  • ​Stimulate the peripheral nerve (best if proximal to the pain area)

  • Stimulate motor point (innervated by the same root level)

  • Stimulate trigger point(s) or acupuncture point(s)

  • Stimulate the appropriate dermatome, myotome or sclerotome

If the pain source is vague, diffuse or particularly extensive, one can employ both channels simultaneously. A 2 channel application can also be effective for the management of a local + a referred pain combination – one channel used for each component. The low frequency (Acupuncture like) TENS can be effectively applied to the contralateral side of the body.