What is a TENS Machine?

What is a TENS Machine?

Apr 18, 2018

TENS is the acronym for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. A TENS machine can be a highly effective tool for managing labour discomfort and alleviating unnecessary pain.

We prefer the FreeMOM TENS. The pads are like no other TENS machine and are built specifically for labour. The large pads go from about mid back to about the level of the dimples in your bottom. These pads help the electrical pulses pass through your skin more easily. The TENS machine has a dial control that you can adjust the frequency and strength of the pulses. There's also a boost button for you to hold in your hand and press when you want maximum output from the machine to help you with a difficult contraction.

How does a TENS machine work?

We don’t know exactly how TENS works, although there are a number of theories. One is that the electrical pulses prevent pain signals from reaching your brain, while another is that the pulses stimulate your body to release its own, natural, feel-good substances, called endorphins. It's also likely that various factors interact to make TENS work. TENS may help you to feel that you have control over your contractions, it may help you to feel less anxious, and it also may provide a distraction from your contractions.

When and how should I use TENS?

TENS seems to work best and give you the most effective pain relief if you start using it at the very beginning of your labour, so rent a TENS machine and use it at home before you go into hospital, if you're having a hospital birth. It takes about an hour for your body to respond to the electrical impulses by releasing endorphins, so start using it when you're getting regular contractions or backache. You may find your machine works better at relieving your backache than abdominal pain. Start with the controls at their lowest settings and turn them up gradually as your contractions or the back pain gets stronger. Use the boost button at the peak of contractions. Very few hospitals provide TENS units. This is partly because most women are only admitted to labour wards once they are in established labour, by which time TENS may not work as well. If you want to carry on using your TENS in established labour that's fine—no one should stop you from doing so, if you feel you are benefiting from it.

What are the advantages of TENS?

  1. It's portable and non-invasive.
  2. It's under your control.
  3. It's easy to use.
  4. You can keep moving while using it.
  5. You can use it for as long as you want and then take it off.
  6. There are no lasting side effects.
  7. It's safe for your baby.
  8. It doesn't need an anesthetist, doctor or midwife to administer, so you can start using it as soon as you want to.
  9. It can be used for either hospital or home birth.

What are the disadvantages?

  1. You will need someone to help you put the pads on.
  2. It may only help in the early stages of labour.
  3. It may have to be removed if your baby's heart has to be monitored electronically.
  4. If you want to use a birthing pool or have a bath, you can use TENS before you get in the water, but not when you are in the water.
  5. It can make it more difficult for your birth partner to massage your back, which can be an effective form of pain relief.

useful tips?

  1. There are many different TENS units available to rent. Ask your friends or your midwife (or an obstetric physiotherapist, if you have one in your area) to help you choose.
  2. Don't give up straight away if you think your TENS isn't doing anything. You need to keep using it for at least an hour to give your body time to build up endorphins in response to the stimulation.
  3. Take the pads off every three hours and smear them again with gel before reapplying them. This ensures that the contact with your back is really good.
  4. Keep mobile. Moving around during labour helps women feel more in control and should therefore enhance the effect of TENS.
  5. If you don't think it's helping you, take it off and don't feel bad. All other forms of pain relief, both medical and non-medical, are still open to you.

If you are interested in learning more about using a TENS machine for your labour, please visit the FreeMOM TENS web page!

We encourage you to learn more about our "What in the World" series. Please see our A to Z index for a whole host of pregnancy, postpartum, and parenting information and terminology.

Heather Crossan is a certified DONA birth and postpartum doula certified Lamaze childbirth educator, certified breastfeeding educator, as well as a certified Henna artist. She has been an active doula in Calgary for the past eight years, is the past-president of the Calgary Doula Association, and was the former provincial representative of Alberta (SPAR) for DONA International. She is also the only DONA Advanced doula in Alberta. Heather is also a birth doula trainer and the owner of Doula Essentials. She is well-known within the international doula community and greatly respected by the medical providers in the city of Calgary and surrounding areas. She takes great pride supporting her clients through the entire journey.