TENS and Pain Relief: The Shock that Soothes

Thousands of years before the first battery or light bulb, our ancestors began using electricity to help patients heal. What was their power source?  One of many species of electric fish that exist throughout the world. In 43 CE Scribonius Largus, physician to Emperor Claudius, recommended putting a torpedo fish on your head to cure even the worst headache. When the first electricity-producing machines were built in the 18th century, many were used to treat a wide variety of ailments. Today, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, is increasingly used to help relieve pain. Unlike an electric eel, TENS devices give patients a mild “tingly” sensation via electrodes on the skin. In 2014 the FDA approved the first TENS device designed to help prevent migraines.  A Cochrane team recently reviewed existing studies on TENS and pain relief to determine what we know about its effectiveness for treating acute pain.

The review team found 19 studies using TENS to treat acute pain associated with surgery, injury or medical procedures. The sources of pain in the reviewed studies ranged from rib fractures to blood draws. Some of the studies compared TENS to no other treatment. Others compared it to pain medication or other pain treatments. Six studies compared TENS to a placebo, or “fake” TENS treatment in which no current was delivered. The reviewers found that TENS was more effective than a placebo in treating acute pain. However, many of the studies were small and had problems with design and reporting. Therefore, the reviewers made clear that these findings were tentative. Although some people reported mild itching or discomfort, no serious harms from TENS were reported. The reviewers concluded that TENS may offer a promising option for managing acute pain.

If you are interested in trying TENS for a pain condition, talk to your healthcare team about whether TENS might be an option for you. Some pain specialists may be able to lend you a machine to try before you buy.  TENS devices range widely in price, so make sure you research all your options.  The National Health Service in the UK offers many more useful TENS tips in its online guide to home TENS use.    More research is needed on the effectiveness of TENS for both acute and chronic pain. We may find that although the TENS device has changed, Scribonius Largus’ prescription for pain relief still holds true today.



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