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TENS stands for “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.” You attach the electrodes around or on top of a painful area of your body, then turn on the device, which emits electrical stimulation into your body.
TENS units are small, often battery-powered devices that you attach to your skin with sticky cutaneous electrodes. Most TENS units have multiple intensity settings, so you can get it just right for your preference.
TENS units are commonly used in chronic pain management because electrical stimulation has been
How do TENS units work?
There are two main theories about how TENS therapy works to relieve pain:
- The first is that the nerves are stimulated by the electrical current, which blocks or “cancels out” the transmission of pain signals from your brain.
- The other is that the stimulation releases endorphins, which are your body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals.
Placebo effect is also an important variable, where believing in the effectiveness of a treatment has an impact on what it does for that person. Some pain management treatments
The units featured below have high reviews and come from trusted brands. We cross-referenced reports to organizations such as the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to make sure each company does not have recalls, lawsuits, or abysmal ratings. Where applicable, I included my own experience using TENS units.
Best splurge TENS device
If you already know TENS units work for you—or if money is no object—this high-end HiDow TENS unit is a great option. With touchscreen controls, this unit boasts 20 adjustable intensity levels and 12 pre-programmed massage modes. The built-in lithium ion battery is easy to recharge via USB, and the small size (3 ⅜” x 2”) means it fits easily in your pocket.
HiDow claims to be the first company to combine TENS therapy and EMS therapy in the same unit. EMS stands for “electrical muscle stimulation,” and stimulates muscles (instead of just nerves like TENS), which can help heal and prevent muscular injuries. Each HiDow unit comes with a two year warranty, with an optional lifetime warranty available at an extra cost.
Considerations: This is a highly reviewed product with lots of options and a good warranty, but doesn’t seem to offer a whole lot more than basic and cheaper models. Probably not the best choice for newbies or those working with a small budget.
Best for budget
Don’t let the low price fool you—this TENS unit has lots of bells and whistles. With 24 pre-programmed massage modes, 20 intensity levels, and a timer that goes from 10-60 minutes, you’ve got a ton of options. The built-in lithium ion battery lasts up to 10 hours and is rechargeable via the included USB cable.
This dual channel unit lets you use 4 pads at a time. You get 8 electrode pads in three different shapes and sizes, so you can find the best one for your use.
The device is smaller than most modern smartphones and fits easily in your pocket.
Considerations: Though it’s small and portable, it can be a little annoying having wires running from your pocket to your skin. These wires mean this unit can not be used discreetly as the wires will likely show.
Best TENS unit for lower back
I picked this one because it’s the upgraded version of a low-back TENS unit formerly made by Aleve. I loved my Aleve TENS unit (which I lost in a move), and am happy to see a newer version now exists. The best feature of this product is there are no wires. It sticks directly on your lower back and is controlled with a separate remote. You can stick it on your back and go about your day without anyone knowing you’re wearing a medical device. You can place it anywhere along your spine, so it works for any type of back pain. Weighing just 4.8 ounces, this TENS unit features 15 intensity levels and 4 preset treatment programs.
Considerations: This unit takes 2 AAA batteries, which must be changed using a tiny included screwdriver. This might be difficult for those with arthritis in their hands or other issues with fine motor skills.
Three preset programs for different body pains (arm/shoulder, lower back, leg/foot), two massage-like modes (knead & steady), each with 10 levels of intensity so you can customize to your comfort level. Includes sticky electric pads that last up to 150 uses, and can be stored in the included plastic case. This unit is sm
Considerations: Though this is highly reviewed, a few reviewers do mention that it’s not that powerful and that replacement pads are often out of stock. This is a good introductory option to TENS units, but if you’re used to more heavy-duty ones, this is not the choice for you.
Best for menstrual cramps
Designed to be discreet, this specialized TENS unit is specifically for period pain. You attach the included electrode pads to your lower belly or lower back, where the electric stimulation will theoretically reduce your menstrual pain. Another bonus is it’s USB-powered, meaning you don’t have to deal with replacing batteries. The remote is simple: Turn it on or off, turn the intensity up or down. Store your Ovira in the included storage bag and keep the pads sticky by stashing them in the included storage disc.
Considerations: This is considerably pricier than other TENS units, but they do offer “Painless Returns” for 100 days after purchase. Keep in mind that regular TENS units may work just as well as this one for cramps, but you never know until you try. The gel pad refills are a whopping $35 for a three month supply, which is more than many other products.
- Pick a budget. How much money are you willing or able to spend on a TENS unit? Customize your searches to this price range so you’re not tempted to overspend.
- Think about why you’re considering a TENS unit. What do you want from a TENS unit? Is it for all-over pain relief or for specific issues like low back pain or menstrual cramps? Look for “dual channel” for TENS units that have 4 pads if you’re looking to focus on a specific point or area of your body.
- Check the manufacturer’s website. Though places like Amazon and Target offer many TENS units for good prices, you might get better service buying directly from the company that makes the unit. This way, you can ask questions via email or chat, read more product details, and make sure your warranty is in order.
- Ask a health professional. Ask a doctor who understands your medical history if TENS units are safe for you, particularly if you have conditions like diabetes, neuropathy, or Cerebral Palsy. General physicians, physical therapists, and some practitioners such as occupational therapists, chiropractors, and acupuncturists who are familiar with TENS therapy may be able to answer other questions.
Remember that it shouldn’t feel painful or uncomfortable when using the TENS unit and remember that trial-and-error is okay to find what works for you on any given day.
Here are frequently asked questions about TENS therapy.
How often can I use TENS therapy?
Start with 15 to 20 minutes once a day and slowly work your way up. You can space this time out over 2 to 3 sessions in a day. Do not use for more than an hour total each day.
How long is it okay to use it at a time?
Many devices have a pre-set timer, typically 20-30 minutes. Most have a 60-minute, or one hour, maximum. If TENS is relieving your pain, it might be tempting to use it for hours a day — resist this urge. Less is more with this therapy. If you overdo it, you risk sensitizing your nerves and making your pain worse.
Can I use a TENS unit on my spine and neck?
No. Take care to never place the electrode pads directly on your spine. You can place the pads on either side of your spine, where the stimulation will still reach your pain, without risking spinal injury or irritation.
Where is it not okay to use a TENS unit?
Along with not putting the electrodes directly on your spine, do not use TENS on:
- your face
- your genitals
- areas recently treated with radiation
- infected tissue
- damaged skin
- open wounds
- or areas with reduced or nonexistent sensation
Where on my body can I use TENS?
Try it on either side of your spine on your lower back, on your shoulders, your knees, or your hips if these areas could use a little pain relief.
If you’ve got chronic pain, you are living in the best day and age to treat it. Pain relief therapies, devices, and techniques are more widely available and more affordable than ever before. TENS therapy is a low-risk, relatively low-cost option for many many people managing joint and muscle pain. Remember to ask your doctor about any concerns, and take your time choosing your TENS unit so you get the right one for you.
Whatever or however you end up stimulating your nerves and/or muscles, I hope it brings you great relief. Feel better!
Ash Fisher is a writer and comedian living with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. When she’s not having a wobbly-baby-deer day, she’s hiking with her corgi, Vincent. Learn more about her on her website.