What is a TENS unit?
A TENS unit is a hand-held, portable nerve stimulation machine that delivers mild bursts of low-voltage electricity to the surface of the skin. The electrical pulses are thought to stimulate nerve pathways in the spinal cord which block the transmission of pain; a sort of “gate-keeper.” It also causes your body to release natural pain relieving endorphins. Using a TENS unit is a drug-free way to help distract you from the pain of labor. The unit consists of a control device, contraction button and two sets of lead wires that connect to four electrode pads. When turned on, the TENS unit gives out a tingly sensation to the area where the electrodes are placed; in this case, your low back. You are manually able to control the intensity of the electrical stimulation.
How is a TENS unit used?
The pads should be placed low on the back to help alleviate back pain and pain associated with labor contractions. When in the resting mode, the TENS unit delivers intermittent, pulse stimulation to keep the brain engaged. Once a contraction comes, you press the contraction button, which increases the intensity by 20% and makes the stimulation constant. TENS units have been found to be more helpful the sooner in labor you use it, so if you are feeling uncomfortable, put the TENS on! The only place a TENS unit cannot be used is in water, so if a tub or shower is part of your pain management plan, remove the device beforehand.
What are the benefits of TENS in labor?
If you are hoping for an unmedicated birth, using a TENS machine is a wonderful tool. A TENS unit does not completely mask the pain in labor, but it does help distract you from it. It’s non-invasive, does not restrict your ability to move during labor and provides natural pain relief. It also allows you a sense of control because you can manually increase the stimulation when necessary. A Cochrane review has concluded that women in labor should have the option of using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation and that some evidence pointed to cases in which women rated pain less severe throughout labor.
Are there side effects from using a TENS unit? Is it OK for my baby?
TENS is non-invasive and has minimal side effects when compared with drug therapy. The most common complaint is an allergic type skin reaction (about 2% of patients) and this is almost always due to the material of the electrodes, the conductive gel or tape employed to hold the electrodes in place.