What is a TENS machine?
TENS stands for “Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and is claimed to be a non-invasive and drug-free method for pain relief. In the early days of TENS machines, they were used by doctors and Physical Therapists to a very restricted extent.
Nowadays, due to the advancement in technology and research, TENS machines can be both used and bought by pretty much everyone.
A TENS machine produces low-voltage pulses that, when the electrode pads are applied to your skin, stimulates the nerve fibers to help block pain signals to your brain. On another more controversial note, some say that, due to the blocking of nerve signals, a TENS machine also causes one to increase natural endorphins also known as “The feel-good-chemical”.
Before we go any further, a disclaimer is in order.
Please consult with your physician before using a TENS machine for fibromyalgia or sciatica if you experience:
- Any acute disease
- Heart disease
- High fever
- Abnormal blood pressure
- Lack of skin sensation or abnormal skin condition
- Any condition requiring the active supervision of a physician
Caution should also be used if:
- Follow recent surgical procedures when muscle contraction may disrupt the healing process
- You don’t yet know or are unsure of the cause of your pain
- If you have epilepsy
- Some patients may experience skin irritation, burn or hypersensitivity due to the electrical stimulation or electrical conductive medium. This irritation can usually be reduced by using an alternate conductive medium, or alternate electrode placement. Electrode placement and stimulation settings should be based on the guidance of the prescribing practitioner.
- The device should be used only with the leads and electrodes recommended for use by the manufacturer
How can a TENS Machine Help with Sciatica or Fibromyalgia?
Okay, just one last disclaimer. There is still a lot of controversy as regards to how TENS machines help with Sciatica or Fibromyalgia. As mentioned above, a big factor is, of course, that it is completely drug-free so if this is something that can either complement or completely overtake the use of medicine – already we have success! (People that have followed me and read my stuff for a while, I’m not keen on medical “pills” treatments).
Furthermore, there is the aspect of the previously mentioned “feel-good” endorphins that is (cit. fn) a result of both the chemical and the mind-body placebo effect.
Although there is also a place to mention the over-use of the TENS machine in regards to treating any chronic pain. It can’t be overdone as the side-effects will take the place of the benefits.
How long should you use your TENS machine if you have sciatica? One must not use it in spans of more than 30-minute sessions and not more than (I would say) 3-4 times a day. If used correctly, no side-effects can almost be excluded.
Also, a way to be sure to stay away from side effects is to not use the electrode pads in the same place each time of use.
As of the controversial part – I actually spent a lot of time studying this before writing this guide, so that no stone was left unturned. The first stone in this analogy is the consistency throughout research that the outcome is mostly positive.
The success rate varies from 70-80% but the positive effects decrease in the second stage treatments (usually after 2-3 months) to about 20-30%. My own take on this statistics is that the initial stage of treatment “opens the doors” to other types of active treatment, such as physical activities and prolonged stretching.
It will most probably also lead to a more socially active lifestyle, which in turn activates the mind-body connection that leads to a more symmetric alignment of the relationship between the mental and physical state.
Does a TENS Machine Hurt if you have Sciatica or Fibromyalgia?
A TENS machine can hurt. But so can a back massager and so can a hot stove. I do understand the caution in approaching such a device due to the electrode pads – they look pretty scary if you have not tried one before.
The matter of fact is that as long as you set the intensity on 1 and slowly increase it, you will be able to stop long before any pain will appear.
Also, as the electrode sends pulsation into the nerves, you can additionally feel this “sensational” pain that you can relate to a good back massage (or if you have tried acupuncture).
The initial settings for TENS unit therapy are best set by a professional, such as a physical therapist or physician. Before going home with a TENS unit, you should be sure to learn how to safely adjust the settings. This way you can try different amplitudes, pulse widths, and pulse rates to see what’s most effective.The Pure Enrichment PurePulse Pro does come with an instructional video, which can be more than beneficial if you are unsure about the use of a TENS machine.
How High Intensity Should You Use?
Again, I have never used a TENS machine with more than 70% at its maximal intensity level (excluded from this statement are the weaker low-quality ones that are not as strong).
TENS machines are all easily adjusted to accord either you sciatica or fibromyalgia. The intensity of a TENS machine is calculated between amplitude, pulse with and pulse rate.
Amplitude is considered the “intensity” since it controls the electrical current and should be set pretty low to start off with.
The pulse width is the time of the effect of each electrical pulse. In other terms, it is the “duration” of the pulse – but this cannot be a correct medical term. Depending on you TENS machine it is usually measured from 10 to 1,000 microseconds.
The pulse rate is the number of pulses that occur every second. The frequency is always constant.
Although it can be a good thing to know what does settings indicate, you seldom have to adjust the metrics yourself, since the pre-adjusted settings do that for you.
So my recommendation for both sciatica and fibromyalgia is to use the most “conventional” setting since it gives you a high pulse rate, low amplitude and a short pulse width.
Although many TENS machines have the “acupuncture” settings, and it might sound tempting, the pulse rate is often way too slow compared to the high-intensity amplitude. I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t prefer it.
A lot of TENS machines likes to use the number of adjustment settings as a sales pitch, but it is often not the sheer number of settings that are important, it is the different settings intervals that are the most important factor to consider, and this is unfortunately hard to know before you have tried one.
Electrode Pads Placement for Sciatica and Fibromyalgia
I believe that this step of the process is pretty much trial and error. Different placements of TENS Machine electrode pads in relation to the nerves require a different adjustment of the intensity. I can give you 3 initial suggestions and you can move forward from these examples.
The placement is even more arbitrary and the electrodes should be placed wherever you think is most beneficial for you. Good pressure points can, for example, be the neck or the shoulders.
For Sciatica you can:
- Attach the electrode pads on either each side of the lower back
- Attach one electrode above the sciatic nerve and one on your thigh
- Attach one on your hip and one on your thigh
Also, if you choose to buy one that can use more than 2 electrode pads at once, the options are even more vast. You can also use a TENS machine for a tennis elbow – meaning it is a very versatile thing to have!
Bonus tips for TENS machine use. Don’t tell the university – but it is pretty fun to use a TENS machine with a high-intensity setting on the forearm and try to have a beer-drinking contest.
If you send me an e-mail I just maybe will send you a video of it!
What are the best TENS units? This link sends you to a full TENS machine review with over 25 TENS machines reviewed.