TENS machine: Its advantages and drawbacks

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Labor can be an overwhelming and painful experience. Thankfully, modern medicine gives you several remedies to deal with the pain that you have to endure during childbirth. One such tool for pain relief is the TENS machine, which is a non-pharmacological method preferred by many pregnant women.

In this article, Momjunction explains everything about TENS machine and its effectiveness during pregnancy.

What is TENS?

TENS machine

TENS is an acronym for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, which is a pain relief machine used during early labor. This non-invasive, drug-free, portable machine was introduced in the 1970s, in Scandinavia. It is a handheld and battery-powered device connected through wires to four flat pads (electrodes) that are attached to your back. The TENS machine is used to relieve you of labor pain. It is also used for pain relief in case of arthritis, knee pain, neck pain, period pain, and sports injuries.

Next, we tell you how the TENS machine functions.

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How Does A TENS Machine Work?

The machine sends low-voltage electric current into the nerves, which pass it on to the spinal cord and the brain through the pads stuck to your back, creating a tingling sensation (1). The magnitude of the electric pulses can be controlled manually based on the intensity of the pain. You can hold the button-assisted controller or have it clipped on to your clothes, to adjust the strength of the pulses during labor.

Whether or not TENS helps in relieving the pain or if it just distracts the women from the pain is not known for sure. However, the electric pulses stimulate the nerves in the spinal cord to block the pain transference (2). It may also lead to the release of endorphins that act as natural pain relievers produced by the body (3).

Although the machine seems to be simple to use, you must follow the instructions correctly for it to work efficiently.

[ Read: Natural Pain Relief During Labour ]

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How To Use The TENS Machine?

You can start by following the instruction manual that comes with the TENS machine. Instructions usually include (4):

  • The machine should be turned off before the pads are placed on your back. Take help of your partner or midwife to stick the pads.
  • Place two of the four pads at the bra strap level on either side of the spine (2.5cm, or 1 inch apart). (an image here will be helpful)
  • Place the remaining two on your lower back, above the bottom.
  • Switch on the machine and choose the lowest settings on the controller. Gradually amplify it as and when your backache gets severe or the contractions get stronger.
  • Keep moving during labor if you feel that the pain in control and the TENS machine is working effectively.
  • It will be a while before you feel the effects of the machine, as the body may require some time to generate the endorphins in response to the machine’s simulations. So, if you are not feeling any control soon after you start using it, don’t fret. Give it some time.
  • If you think the pads are losing their stickiness, then add few drops of gel, rub it on the pads and place them back. The more firmly the pads sit on your back, the better it works.

When used the right way, the machine can be highly effective. Keep reading to know how useful it can be.

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How Effective Is TENS?

There is a lack of evidence to prove the effectiveness of TENS machine during labor. However, it poses no side-effects, which is why most midwives support its use during labor. Here is what some studies show about TENS effectiveness:

Using TENS on acupuncture points:

  • May reduce the number of women suffering from severe pain during labor.
  • May increase the number of women satisfied with this pain relief method.
  • Increases the number of women going for TENS in the future.
  • Does not make any difference in the c-section rate.

Using TENS on the lower back:

  • Probably no difference in the number of women content with this pain relief method.
  • May increase the number of women going for this method in the future.
  • Makes no difference to the c-section rate.

Seek the help of an experienced midwife or nurse to benefit most from TENS machine usage.

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What Are The Advantages Of TENS?

Some advantages of TENS machine usage are listed below (5), (6), (7):

  • It is handy and easy to use.
  • You can use it while moving around.
  • Has no long lasting side-effects.
  • It gives you control of the contraction pain.
  • Use of this machine has helped in reducing the use of Pethidine or Nitrous Oxide (gas) during labor, which is used for pain relief.
  • It can be used in case of pelvic instability and tightness in the neck and shoulder.
  • Effectively used for stage 1 and 2 of labor.
  • Effective in reducing the after-birth pain.
  • Used to promote good sleep after delivery.
  • Use it as long as you want, remove and put it back again when you need it.
  • Does not cause drowsiness in mother and the baby.
  • Can be used along with other pain relief methods.
  • Doesn’t require third-party assistance for use.
  • It can be used during home birth as well.

There are also a few disadvantages that you should know about.

[ Read: Ways To Speed Up Labor ]

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What Are The Drawbacks Of TENS?

  • You may require someone’s help to fix the pad on your back if it gets loosened.
  • It needs to be removed while monitoring the fetal heartbeat.
  • May provide relief only during early labor.
  • It is not recommended for use during water births.
  • Massaging your back during labor becomes inconvenient with the pads on.

There are some contraindications for the use of TENS machine.

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When Shouldn’t You Use TENS Machine?

You should avoid using Tens machine in the following situations:

  • If you are pregnant but not in labor.
  • While taking a shower and in birth pools.
  • In the case of epilepsy.
  • If you have a healing scar in the area where the pads need to be fixed.
  • In case of heart problems or if you have a cardiac pacemaker.
  • If you feel that the pain is not the labor pain. In this case, you can see a doctor or midwife.

If it seems like a feasible option for labor pain relief, keep reading to know how to acquire one when you need it.

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How To Get A TENS Machine?

Not all hospitals may have a TENS machine at their disposal. In such case, you will either need to hire, borrow, or purchase one. These machines are usually available at birth centers or midwife-led units where the use of TENS machine is supported.

If you want to buy one, then browse your options online and check for reviews before making a choice. Always pick a machine, whether you’re buying or renting it, that comes with hypoallergenic pads, especially if you have sensitive skin.

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Some Other Recommendations

  • Attend a childbirth class or ask your midwife about the usage of this machine before deciding that you want to use it. Understand how it works and how it should be used during the labor.
  • Take off the pads from your back every three hours and apply gel in the area to ensure that the pads firmly remain in position, with good skin contact.
  • While using this machine, keep yourself mobile to improve the effectiveness of the TENS machine.

Following a few precautions on how and when to use the machine will keep you and the baby safe.

[ Read: Ways To Relieve Pain During Labor ]

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What Precautions Do You Need To Take?

Here are some standard precautions you must take while using the TENS machine during pregnancy:

  • The machine should not be used before the 37th week of pregnancy unless the doctor advises you to do so.
  • Avoid using the TENS machine if you have any electrical implants such as a pacemaker or any other type of metal, Seek the doctor’s advice in any case.
  • In case of heart problem or epilepsy, speak to your doctor about the safety of using the TENS machine.
  • Always switch off the machine before putting or removing the pads from your body.

As this machine may not be suitable for all, seek professional advice before trying it.

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Can You Get Epidural While Using TENS Machine?

If the doctor deems it necessary, you can get an epidural shot even if you have started using the TENS. However, the electrodes will be removed from the body before the epidural is administered.

While it is a tool for pain relief, TENS machine is still an electrical device that must be used safely. So talk to the experts and the doctors and learn how to use it safely before using it during labor. Do not use it if the doctor or midwife thinks the tool is not ideal for you. There are always alternatives for pain relief.

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Did you use TENS machine during labor? What was your experience? Let us know in the comments section below.


1. The Effect of TENS for Pain Relief in Labor; Cochrane Library
2. Dowswell T, Bedwell C, Lavender T, Neilson JP; TENS for pain relief in labour; Cochrane Library (2009)
3. TENS; Healthdirect, Australia
4. TENS (Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation); NHS
5. The TENS Machine; St. Vincent’s Private Hospital
6. Pain relief in labour; NCT
7. Hiring A Labour TENS Machine; Swan Hill District Health (2015)

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