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Learn about TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) as treatment for chronic pain, Alzheimer's disease and ADHD.

Before engaging in any complementary medical technique, you should be aware that many of these techniques have not been evaluated in scientific studies. Often, only limited information is available about their safety and effectiveness. Each state and each discipline has its own rules about whether practitioners are required to be professionally licensed. If you plan to visit a practitioner, it is recommended that you choose one who is licensed by a recognized national organization and who abides by the organization's standards. It is always best to speak with your primary health care provider before starting any new therapeutic technique.

Background

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) involves the passage of low-voltage electrical current to electrodes pasted on the skin. The current is delivered through wires from a small battery-powered power unit. The frequency and intensity of this treatment depend on the specific condition and treatment goals. Accordingly, the electrode pads are placed in various sites on the body. Frequency, intensity, and site of application are believed to be pivotal to achieving optimal effects during and after stimulation.

TENS is most commonly used for pain management. There are different types of TENS:

  • Conventional TENS — High- or low-frequency electrical current is applied, often near affected areas.
  • Acupuncture-like TENS — Lower-frequency current is used at specific trigger points.
  • Auricular TENS — Electrical current is applied to the ear

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Theory

Electricity has been used medicinally for thousands of years. Stone carvings from ancient Egypt depict electric fish being used to treat pain. In ancient Greece, electrogenic torpedo fish were used to treat arthritis and headache.

There are several proposed explanations for how TENS may work:

  • It may affect the nerves that perceive pain or light touch.
  • It may interfere with nerve pathways.
  • It may alter the natural chemicals (such as encephalins, endorphins, opioids or substance P) that affect the way pain is perceived and transmitted.

None of these mechanisms has been clearly demonstrated in scientific research, and the basis of potential activity of TENS is controversial.

Theories traditionally used to explain acupuncture, such as effects on flow of vital energy, have also been offered to explain TENS. It is sometimes suggested that TENS may affect the cardiovascular system, increasing heart rate and reducing blood pressure.