What is TENS Therapy?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, commonly referred to as TENS, is a form of therapy that relies on electric currents with low voltage for temporary pain relief. It has been around for decades, and it is now highly recommended for chronic pain.
Patients will use a small device powered by batteries, called the TENS unit, which they will use at home. They will place the small electrodes with adhesive pads close to the source of the pain by attaching them to the skin. With the help of electrothermal and nerve stimulation therapy, this device can help with different types of pain caused by various conditions – such as costochondritis, back pain, or any other condition.
How Does TENS Therapy Work?
TENS therapy treats the pain through the central and peripheral mechanisms. It will activate or stimulate the muscarinic receptors and serotonin levels. When the device is ready to use, it will emit electrical currents to stimulate the nerves. This electrical current floods the entire nervous system, reducing its pain signals to the brain and spinal cord.
Furthermore, the devices are designed to stimulate the release of endorphins, which are natural pain relievers in the human body. This helps reduce pain without the use of medication.
To have complete control of the frequency of the electrical current, patients can select any frequency they want from less than 10 Hz to over 50 Hz. If the patient feels comfortable with stronger sensations, they can adjust the frequency accordingly. The higher the frequency, the stronger the muscle contraction. These contractions are not painful, and they simply stimulate the nerves at a higher electrical frequency.
More precisely, low frequencies stimulate the μ-opioid receptors located in the brainstem and spinal cord, whereas higher frequencies stimulate the δ-opioid receptors located in the brainstem and spinal cord as well. These receptors boost the central mechanisms to create analgesia, reducing the body’s ability to feel pain.
Can TENS Therapy Help Costochondritis?
Costochondritis can be treated with TENS therapy, as well as other forms of therapy that involve nerve stimulation. Even though TENS therapy can be useful for some people, it may not work for every individual. It heavily depends on the way the body reacts to the therapy. While there are a variety of treatments for costochondritis, TENS therapy is becoming increasingly popular.
Multiple factors can influence the effect of this treatment such as the patient’s tolerance, stimulation intensity, and electrode placement.
The more that TENS therapy is used, the higher the chance of developing a tolerance for it. If the patient develops high tolerance, they won’t be able to feel the effects of the treatment, research shows.
The stimulation intensity, on the other hand, means that a person might need higher intensities to get any results. They won’t be able to achieve positive results on the lowest frequencies.
Lastly is the placement of the electrode. For best effects, research shows that these electrodes may be placed on acupuncture points. Scientists believe these locations can boost endorphins, but more research is necessary to confirm this claim. If a patient can’t use the device on the proper location, they might not get the results they need.
How Can TENS Therapy Affect Costochondritis Symptoms?
Since costochondritis can cause chest pain, TENS therapy can help ease the symptoms. In other words, this noninvasive method might reduce the need for more pain medications. If other, simple treatments such as medication have not proven effective, TENS therapy or other physical therapies are worth exploring with your physician.
TENS therapy can be useful for people who want to numb the pain by applying electric pulses to the affected area. This therapy stimulates the nervous system to release endorphins, which, in the end, could be useful for reducing the symptoms of costochondritis.
However, the effects of this therapy are highly depend on the individual. Some patients deal with severe cases of costochondritis, while others experience only mild symptoms. Usually, TENS therapy is more useful for mild symptoms. Anything higher than that might require additional medications, such as pain relievers or steroid injections, to ease the pain.
Though this type of treatment has been around for decades, more research is necessary to study, confirm, and refine the effects of this treatment and learn more about how it can help reduce pain.
Risks and side effects of TENS therapy
Even though this device is safe for most people, some may experience certain negative side effects after using the unit for a specific amount of time such as:
- Irritated and red skin
- Reduced blood pressure
- Muscle spasms
- Eye injury if used on the eye
Use of the device should be discontinued if you experience any of these problems.
Who Should Avoid TENS Therapy?
TENS therapy does sound promising, but it’s not for everyone. Certain groups should stay away from these devices unless their physician instructs them otherwise, including:
- People with heart diseases
- Anyone with epilepsy
- People who use pacemakers
- Pregnant women
Safety Precautions for TENS Therapy
There are certain precautions to be taken when using TENS therapy. First, before you remove or apply the electrodes, you need to turn the device off. Also, if you expose the skin to extended electrode stimulation, the skin can become irritated. That’s why it’s important to use the device only for the areas your physician has suggested. Lastly, don’t ever adjust the controls of the device while driving. In fact, don’t do anything distracting while you’re driving. It’s important to stay safe when using TENS therapy units.
What Should You Look for When Buying a TENS Device?
Every TENS machine you will come across will feature different programs and modes you can use. Some models have a lot more features than others. Go for the ones that have plenty of modes, options, and programs. Select the ones with more outputs, too, if you want to have multiple electrode pairs at the same time. Pick the ones with different intensity levels, as well. You can select your preferred level for the best results. Other cool features to have include timers, screens, and EMS. These features can add additional functionality and make the device more convenient to use.
EMS stands for electrical muscle therapy, and is a different type of therapy that is used for muscle simulation and growth rather than pain relief. Maybe TENS therapy devices also have EMS functionality.
Does TENS Therapy Work?
Based on studies, TENS treatment can be useful for some people; however, there is not enough strong evidence to conclusively support the full effect of this treatment. Even though it is a low-risk therapy, many factors can impact the effectiveness and TENS therapy may not be useful for everyone. Nevertheless, plenty of patients have reported experiencing positive results. With more studies and clinical trials, the medical community will be able to conclude if this treatment is beneficial for everyone.
With all of the treatment options and home remedies available for costochondritis, TENS therapy is both a low-cost option and a low-risk option worth exploring if you have already tried other treatments.
Has you tried treating your costochondritis with TENS therapy? What was your experience? Feel free to leave a comment below.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed is a surgery resident practicing plastic surgery and working on his masters degree. Dr. Zayed has a passion for helping people live healthy lives, and has authored several books. He has contributed to publications such as the Washington Post, HuffPo, Chicago Tribune, and more. Dr. Zayed has an MD from the University of Alexandria, one of the largest medical schools in Egypt.