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There are several different from arthritis that can help ease pain-related symptoms. One of these methods is known as electrical nerve stimulation. This article outlines everything you need to know about electrical nerve stimulation and arthritis.

Currently, there is no cure for arthritis, a disease that is characterized by joint inflammation and pain. Doctors tend to treat arthritis pain with medication, but there are other methods that can also help reduce inflammation. One of these technique is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).

What is TENS?

TENS is a type of treatment that uses mild electrical currents on the skin to help relieve pain. TENS is administered through the use of a machine that is small, hand-held and battery-operated. The machine produces electrical currents, which, through the use of lead wires, sends currents to self-adhesive electrode pads that are attached to your skin.

What does it feel like?

Fortunately, these electrical "shocks" are not painful. What you will feel or experience is a non-painful tingling or a buzzing sensation that will help either halt or reduce pain signals.

How do I use TENS?

Two pads that can conduct electricity are placed on either side of the region that is the most painful. This helps TENS cover the entire painful area. For a larger area of pain, you can use four electrode pads. Users are able to modify the strength of the current that goes through the electrodes with a rotary knob or dial. You can buy machines that have larger controls so you can more easily handle them if your arthritis has restricted movement of your hands. You will need to adjust the pattern and speed of current when you are using the machine. You should adjust the current of TENS just until you feel a strong tingling sensation that is comfortable and not painful.

What are the risks associated with TENS?

Generally, there are only a limited number of risks and side effects when using TENS as long you as follow the appropriate instructions and safety precautions. First, you should check with your doctor or physiotherapist to ensure that a TENS machine is safe for you to use. Next, do not use a TENS machine if you have any implanted electrical device (such as a pacemaker) as electrical shocks can alter the activity of the implanted device. Furthermore, if you have epilepsy, deep vein thrombosis, heart problems, cancer, or skin problems, then you should consult your doctor about whether TENS is safe for you.

Do not use the TENS machine if you are in the second or third trimester of your pregnancy. You can use it in early pregnancy as long it is not over your abdomen or lower back. However, you should check with your doctor before you use the machine. Also, do not place the electrodes over the front of your neck, on your eyes, on your head or in your mouth. You should only use TENS when you are at home. You should not use the machine when you are driving, operating machinery, sleeping or in the shower.

Rarely, TENS can cause your skin to become a little red and itchy after you take off the electrodes. This is normal and should disappear rapidly. However, you have to monitor your skin regularly after you use TENS to make sure it remains healthy. If the redness persists, then you should contact your doctor for further advice. If you develop a serious skin reaction, then you may need to stop using it, at least for a short while, in order let your skin recover.

Where do I buy a TENS machine?

You can buy a TENS machine at a pharmacy or online, and you don't require a prescription. You can also ask your doctor for a referral to a physiotherapist as they tend to have these machines. Hence, you may be able to try it out before you buy it. Before you use it on your own, you should consult your physiotherapist as they will be able to show you how to use it properly. They may also allow you to borrow a TENS machine, but many people find buying a TENS machine for home use is worth it. However, before you buy one, you should make sure that the company will refund you in case you find that it doesn’t help you.

TENS machines are similar across the board with regards to quality. Thus, it shouldn’t matter whether you are buying a simple, cost-effective device or if you are buying an expensive, state-of-the-art device. Before you buy any machine, you should ask where to put the electrodes and how to use it.

How often do I use a TENS machine?

Once you have been taught how to use it properly, you are encouraged to use TENS throughout the day as a pain relief treatment. You may need to continuously use it because the pain relief effects are short-lived, although they can sometimes last for hours. As TENS is safe, you can actually use it as much as you want and as soon as you need pain relief. In fact, some sufferers use the TENS machine for more than five hours a day. However, it is a good practice to take regular 10-minute breaks every hour or so.

  • Brosseau, Lucie, et al. "Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis in the hand." Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2 (2003).
  • Wai Ying, Kathryn Ning, and Alison While. "Pain relief in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis: TENS." British journal of community nursing 12.8 (2007): 364-371.
  • Johnson, Mark I. "Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)." e LS (2001).
  • Photo courtesy of SteadyHealth

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