TENS units have been around for over forty years, and their use is becoming more mainstream. Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) involves sending low-voltage electrical currents through the skin to stimulate nerves, thereby reducing pain. While further research is ongoing to establish a more comprehensive review of the efficacy of TENS and how it can better be integrated into pain management programs, its use in a variety of settings, including both inpatient and outpatient care, are undeniable. Noting that TENS is non-invasive and has few to no harmful effects when correctly used, many health care companies have developed various innovative at-home TENS devices. As a result, people have a wide selection of TENS units to choose from when tackling pain issues such as in injury recovery, chronic conditions, muscle spasms, or even muscle spasms. So, what does the future hold for TENS?

As more research is conducted on the efficacy of TENS, it is likely that its use will continue to grow. In addition, as at-home devices become more user-friendly and customizable, it is likely that we will see an increase in the number of people using TENS. Here are some future prospects of TENS that could influence both patients and providers:

1. Advance injury rehabilitation following physical therapy

TENS is commonly used during physical therapy. It is an effective technique for targeting pain in the clinic, helping to provide relief, increase pain tolerance to exercise, and reduce pain-induced involuntary movement. In the clinic, it is an effective method of targeting pain, thus serving to provide relief for the patient, reducing pain-induced abnormal movement, and increasing patient tolerance to exercise1. Physical therapists often prescribe exercises for their patients to do at home in order to support recovery and regain function. However, patients may not always adhere to the prescribed exercise regimen due to discomfort or soreness. Now, TENS can also be recommended for home use in conjunction with rehabilitative exercise programs. By prescribing a specific TENS protocol to go along with the exercises – such as timing, mode, and intensity – physical therapists can increase the likelihood that patients will follow through with their at-home care plan. As a result, when used in combination with an exercise program, TENS provides an additional level of support that can lead to better recovery outcomes.

2. Reduce reliance on pain medications

The global analgesics market is anticipated to develop at a faster rate over the next decade due to rising pain management needs. This growth is driven by the increasing prevalence of pain and the growing demand for effective pain management therapies. Opioids are among the most commonly used analgesics, but their use is associated with a number of risks, including addiction and overdose. As a result, there is a growing interest in alternatives to opioids, such as TENS. In a meta-analysis examining TENS for pain control after knee arthroplasty, it was found that TENS significantly reduced pain and opioid consumption following the surgery5. This suggests that TENS could be a great alternative to opioids for pain management, which could help to reduce the reliance on these drugs. While TENS is already a beneficial part of many postoperative pain management programs, it can also serve to limit opioid consumption.

3. Integration into long-term pain management

While TENS has traditionally been used to provide short-term pain relief, recent studies have shown that it can also be effective for the management of chronic pain. One study, in particular, examined the applicability of TENS in long-term use in ocular pain and found that TENS could be integrated into long-term management and resulted in significant improvements in pain intensity6. As such, TENS could be an effective tool for managing chronic pain, such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, and back pain.

4. Progress post-surgical pain management

Following surgery, patients often experience significant pain that can interfere with their ability to recover and return to their normal level of functioning. TENS is sometimes used for pain management in the hospital following surgery. However, over time, the use of TENS for post-operative recovery is likely to increase. While more research is being done, studies have begun to compile data relating to TENS and postoperative outcomes. For example, a study was conducted on the use of TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) for post-surgical pain management in patients with hip fractures. The results showed that patients who used TENS had far greater pain reduction during walking than the placebo group3. This is significant because it means that TENS can be an effective tool for helping patients progress through their post-surgical rehabilitation. Given the finding of an increasing number of studies, more health professionals are prompted to incorporate TENS as an evidence-based practice.

5. Improvements in labor pain management

TENS has been shown to be effective in managing labor pain, and its use is likely to increase due to its non-invasive nature and low cost2. When used during labor, TENS can help to reduce the intensity of contractions and improve the mother’s sense of control. Additionally, TENS can be used as a form of self-care, allowing mothers to actively participate in their own pain management. This is an intervention that is likely to become more popular as it gives nurses the option to offer a low-risk management strategy and as mothers seek out ways to manage labor pain without medication.

6. TENS in non-pain conditions

While Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is most commonly used as a pain management technique, it is relatively new in other non-pain conditions. For now, early studies suggest that TENS may be helpful for conditions such as stroke, dementia, and nausea4. Additionally, there is some evidence that TENS may also be effective in promoting tissue regeneration and reducing the risk of tissue necrosis4. For sure, more studies are needed to fully understand the potential applications of TENS; still, it is clear that TENS therapy shows promise for a wide range of conditions.

Bottom Line

From physical therapy to reducing pain medication usage to long-term pain management, TENS could have a significant impact on patient care and functional outcomes. At the same time, professionals are likely to incorporate more TENS therapy following surgical procedures. Not to mention, the advances in TENS technology are growing, which includes wearables, smart technology, and integrated heat technology.

Simply stated, TENS is on the rise both at the hospital and at home. Thus, it’s best to stay ahead of the curve and teach proper usage to patients in order to provide them with the most comprehensive care.

References

  1. Chimenti, R. L., Frey-Law, L. A., & Sluka, K. A. (2018). A Mechanism-Based Approach to Physical Therapist Management of Pain. Physical therapy, 98(5), 302–314. https://doi.org/10.1093/ptj/pzy030
  2. Daniel, L., Benson, J., & Hoover, S. (2021). Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation for Pain Management for Women in Labor. MCN. The American journal of maternal child nursing, 46(2), 76–81. https://doi.org/10.1097/NMC.0000000000000702
  3. Elboim-Gabyzon, M., Andrawus Najjar, S., & Shtarker, H. (2019). Effects of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) on acute postoperative pain intensity and mobility after hip fracture: A double-blinded, randomized trial. Clinical interventions in aging, 14, 1841–1850. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S203658
  4. Johnson M. I. (2021). Resolving Long-Standing Uncertainty about the Clinical Efficacy of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) to Relieve Pain: A Comprehensive Review of Factors Influencing Outcome. Medicina (Kaunas, Lithuania), 57(4), 378. https://doi.org/10.3390/medicina57040378
  5. Li, J., & Song, Y. (2017). Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation for postoperative pain control after total knee arthroplasty: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Medicine, 96(37), e8036. https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000008036
  6. Zayan, K., Aggarwal, S., Felix, E., Levitt, R., Sarantopoulos, K., & Galor, A. (2020). Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation for the Long-Term Treatment of Ocular Pain. Neuromodulation : journal of the International Neuromodulation Society, 23(6), 871–877. https://doi.org/10.1111/ner.13146