By Adrienne Dellwo
Four electrodes from a TENS unit are on a woman’s bare back.
A TENS unit isn’t a typical part of a fibromyalgia treatment regimen. Odds are good that your doctors have never suggested it. But is it something you should ask about? A small but growing body of scientific literature suggest that it just might be.
What is TENS?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. It’s a common part of physical therapy, where the therapist uses a large machine. Personal units that you can use at home are also available.
A personal TENS unit is a pocket-sized device with a couple of cables that attach to electrodes. You stick the electrodes around where you’ve got pain, and the device sends a little electricity through the area.
Why does that relieve pain? Because of a built-in feature of our brains.
As our senses take in the world, we bring in far too much information for our brains to process. That means it has to filter out what it deems less important.
As part of this filtering process, our brains are designed to favor new input. TENS exploits this trait by essentially distracting your nerves with a tingly new sensation, thus stopping them from sending pain signals.
Typically, the stimulation is delivered in short bursts or patterns, rather than as a constant stream. That’s to keep your brain interested in it for longer periods of time. Otherwise, it would start to filter it out before long.
It’s more than just distraction, though. TENS is also believed to get your brain to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkillers.
Pain leads to tension, which leads to more pain, which leads to more tension, etc. Breaking that cycle can give your muscles the relief that can be so hard to come by, and TENS may help break that cycle.
TENS is generally considered a very safe treatment. As long as the strength of the electricity isn’t set too high, it isn’t painful. It won’t interact with medications or other treatments. It won’t make you loopy like pain drugs can, and it rarely causes unwanted side effects. With a personal unit, you can use it when you need it the most and without having to make an appointment or leave the house.
A small percentage of people in the general population can’t tolerate TENS. We don’t know whether that number is higher in fibromites, but with how sensitive we are, it stands to reason. However, it doesn’t take long to determine whether you like the feeling or not. The first few tingles will probably let you know.
TENS for Fibromyalgia
So far, we haven’t see a lot of research on TENS for fibromyalgia pain, but what we have appears promising. As with other treatments, it doesn’t work for everyone, but it does help some of us.
In general, the research suggests that TENS treatments do significantly relieve fibromyalgia pain during treatment and for a short time afterward. Researchers have suggested future work aimed at evaluating the effect over time of on-going TENS use.
Some research suggests that TENS may even have a calming effect on the central nervous system (CNS). A central feature of fibromyalgia is believed to be a hyper-sensitized CNS, which is called central sensitization, so anything that will calm it down is likely to be a benefit.
A study published in Rheumatology International suggests that it may help alleviate fibromyalgia pain associated with exercise.
TENS is recommended as part of a larger treatment plan, not as a sole treatment
Getting a TENS Unit
Some insurance policies cover TENS units and replacement electrodes (they wear out after several uses) when the unit is prescribed by a doctor. Some do not, though.
Units are available to buy without a prescription. They run from about $25 to $100. You can get packs of replacement electrodes starting around $15.
A benefit of getting one prescribed is that your doctor will likely send you to a physical therapist to learn how to use it, which may help you be more successful. We need our treatments to do their job well and not cause further problems. Using a TENS unit incorrectly could really aggravate your muscles.
If you buy one on your own, you should make sure your doctor knows you’re using it.
A few caveats: If you have reduced sensation, are pregnant, have cancer, or have a pacemaker, TENS isn’t considered safe for you.
A Word From Verywell
Always remember that what works for some of us doesn’t work for all of us. It’s best to approach each treatment with cautious optimism. If a TENS doesn’t seem to be right for you, don’t stick with it just because it worked for someone else.
Carbonario F, Matsutani LA, Yuan SL, Margues AP. Effectiveness of high-frequency transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation at tender points as adjuvant therapy for patients with fibromyalgia. European journal of physical and rehabilitation medicine. 2013 Apr;49(2):197-204.
Dailey DL, Rakel BA, Vance CG, et al. Transcutaneous electrical never stimulation reduce pain, fatigue and hyperalgesia while restoring central inhibition in primary fibromyalgia.Pain. 2013 Nov;154(11):2554-62.
Lofgren M, Norrbrink C. Pain relief in women with fibromyalgia: a cross-over study of uperficial warmth stimulation and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Journal of rehabilitation medicine. 2009 Jun;41(7):557-62.
Mutlu B, Parker N, BugdayciD, Tekdos D, Kesiktas N. Efficacy of supervised exercise combined with transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in women with fibromyalgia: a prospective controlled study. Rheumatology international. 2013 Mar;33(3):649-55.
Nijs J, Meeus M, Van Oosterwijck J, et al. Treatment of central sensitization in patients with ‘unexplained’ chronic pain: what options do we have? Expert opinion on pharmacotherapy. 2011 May;12(7):1087-98