What is a TENS System?

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  • Written By: Katriena Knights
  • Edited By: J.T. Gale
  • Last Modified Date: 12 September 2019
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A Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator (TENS) system can be used for various purposes, but one of the most common is for pain control. TENS units can produce significant relief for those suffering from chronic pain. The TENS electrodes are placed at specific areas on the skin; electrical pulses then are transmitted through the unit. In cases of pain management, it is theorized that the electrical stimuli from the TENS system short-circuits the electrical signals sent by the nerves of the body, in effect short-circuiting the pain signals. An alternate theory is that it helps stimulate the production of endorphins.

Another application for the TENS system is in treating temporomandibular disorder (TMD). The electric stimulation is used to completely relax the muscles of the jaw, allowing them to settle into their natural alignment. Based on the relaxed position of the jawbone, a dentist who specializes in treating this type of jaw misalignment can develop an individualized course of treatment. Treatments for TMD include orthotics, veneers, dental bonding, traditional braces, or a combination of these approaches depending on individual needs.


Due to its compact size, the TENS unit is portable and can be worn for a period of time during normal daily activity if necessary. The device can be turned on or off depending on the need of the patient for pain control. Providing the patient with control over pain treatment can be a great help in improving quality of life. The patient, with assistance from a doctor or physical therapist, can determine how often the unit is used as well as what voltage level is most effective.

Physical therapists also make use of the TENS system to help treat certain conditions. In conjunction with physical therapy, electronic muscle stimulation (EMS) can help relax the muscle spasms that cause certain kinds of lower back pain. While a TENS system alone generally is not recommended for long-term treatment, it can be helpful as a part of a varied course of treatment that also includes targeted exercise and other treatment modalities.

A TENS system typically must be obtained with a prescription and should be used under the guidance of a physical therapist or other medical professional. Guidance from a physician can help a patient place the electrodes properly to ensure that the patient receives the maximum benefit. A physician also can help determine how often the system should be used, and at what voltage.


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