Do TENS Units Work?

by Miel | Last Updated: May 27, 2017 When you buy something using the links on our posts, we may earn a small commission at no additional cost to you. Learn more.

I got some time off from work so I’m settled down with a healthy smoothie ready to tackle some of your questions that you’ve mailed in. For today, let’s answer… Do TENS units work?

My first experience with a TENS machine was in a hospital setting. In a post about memory pillows, I’d mentioned earlier about my frozen shoulder and some other un-fun stuff. I was in chronic pain. My ortho doc had me do a series of physical therapy. The core therapies were exercises, ultrasound, heat, and TENS.

Did it work? Does it work? First, let’s discuss what TENS actually is.


TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator. As a form of electrotherapy, TENS is designed to alleviate pain in the human body.

Electrotherapy, the use of electrical energy for medical treatment, has existed for years. The earliest report of this kind of treatment was in 1767 at Middlesex Hospital in London. Electrotherapy has also given the medical world innovations like the Pulsed Electromagnetic Field Therapy (PEMF), but in this article, we want to see the uses of TENS units as a form of pain-relieving therapy.

The Science Bit

So here’s how it works and how a session would go.

First off, the contact points are lubricated with gel. Then small pads are attached to certain parts of your body depending on your condition.

tens pads

The last step in the preparations is adjusting the intensity of the electric pulses and the duration of the session.

tens controls

Once started, the TENS machine sends electric pulses across the skin and nerve strands. As these stimulating pulses travel along our body, they keep pain signals from getting to our brain and spinal cord. At the same time, your body is also stimulated to produce more endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which also happen to bring about feelings of well-being and euphoria.


Learn the best TENS unit settings here.

Do TENS Units work?

Numerous studies have been carried out on the use of TENS units to relieve pain and results have been mixed. Some studies show that TENS units do work for certain kinds of pain. Other types of research show that they only work in ways similar to a placebo, meaning that users’ results are based on personal expectations and beliefs—not on the treatment.

Obviously, when I had my physical therapy sessions, I had no idea about placebos. As far as I knew, my condition was improving as I counted down my sessions.

The exercises strengthened the muscles that needed to be strengthened. The combination heat/ultrasound/TENS therapy loosened my tight knots and muscles. I was taught little life hacks to help me avoid triggering pain like in my case, never holding the phone between my head and shoulder. Or, rolling to the side and then pushing up with an arm to get out of bed.

In the end, I did gain some respite from pain after each session.

Later, I would purchase a set from Amazon and would DIY a session at home. (The hospital sessions were way too expensive!) Once you do it several times, it’s easy to learn. I used mine a lot when I first purchased it. Lately, it has been gathering dust as I have been happily pain-free. I just dust it off every now and again when the pain hits and need some quick relief.

my tens unit

Here is a photo of my tens unit together with one of my salt lamps.  There’s the brand of mine in the picture. It’s included in our list of best TENS units to buy.

And that about answers your question, “Do TENS units work?”

Will it cure you permanently? No, it won’t.

Can it bring you some relief or a quick respite from pain? Yes, it can.

What you should know before using a TENS Units machine

  1. If it’s your first time, please start the dials at a lower setting. There have been reports of people been jolted by electricity. The electricity in a TENS Units machine is not enough to be fatal but your body needs to get used to the high settings. So start with the minimum settings and work your way up.
  2. Follow the instruction on the unit to the letter. There are certain parts of your body where TENS electrodes should not be placed.
  3. Know where you are supposed to be attaching the pads. NEVER put them on top or too near the spine. You can refer to this cheat sheet for TENS electrode positioning:

Informative Video about TENS

Here is a must-watch video. The good doctor explains what TENS is, the different parts of the machine, and how you can use it.

How to Use a TENS Unit to Relieve Muscle and Joint Pain


To sum up, a TENS unit can give relief if used regularly until your pain diminishes or goes away. Relief comes faster if complemented with heat therapy and so on.

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Try it out yourself! Many quality TENS units cost less than $50, so you can give it a go without hurting your purse.

But don’t forget. Your TENS only helps you deal with pain. It doesn’t and can’t cure you. If you want a long-term fix for your condition, give your daily habits a closer look and do a lifestyle change. Sleep, eat, live well, and let your body and mind heal.

Author: M. Diaz

Miel is currently a full-time hospital clerk in the city. He used to have more writing time until rotations came along. In his 4th year of Medicine, his hobbies are sleeping and more sleeping. He dreams of being a couch potato.