Today I wanted to talk about TENS units and how they can help birthing people have a more comfortable and empowering birth experience. TENS units are not very popular in the United States; however, they are extremely popular in Canada, the UK, Australia, and other countries. “TENS” stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This is a completely drug-free method of pain relief that is often used in physical therapy settings to relieve chronic pain caused by joint issues, back pain, endometriosis, arthritis, sports injuries, and a whole host of other conditions (1). They are also great to relieve the cramps you might experience from your menstrual cycle (ask me how I know. haha). It really is a shame that they're not more popular and widely available here in the United States.
Although there is an electrical component to using these units, you will by no means electrocute yourself. The electric pulses that you would experience range from mild to moderate to pretty-dang-strong, but they are not dangerous. The signals are transferred through electrodes that are placed on your lower back and the unit is completely controlled by the birthing person so that they can adjust the strength of the electrical signal according to the strength of their contractions.
There are two main theories that explain why TENS units are an effective tool to relieve the discomfort from contractions. The first is the Gate Control Theory which says that your body can only take so much stimulation and that once you get to a certain point, additional stimulation will not be able to pass through a neurological “gate” along your spinal cord to reach your brain (2). This theory most likely is in play when contractions are mild to moderate. The second theory that is used to explain how TENS units work is the Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control Theory. This theory basically explains that in situations of intense sensation, like what you would experience from strong contractions during labor, if you introduce another source of discomfort or pain, such as turning your TENS unit to its highest settings, you can encourage your body to release endorphins, which are your bodies natural painkillers. It seems counter intuitive, but for many people this is what helps them get through their labors without any pain medication at all.
There are quite a few pros to using these units. Some include that you can still walk around, the units are very small and handheld, you can take the electrodes off and put them back on if you want a break, or you want to try the tub or shower, there are no lasting side effects, it is safe for you and it does not affect the baby, they can be used at home and at the hospital, the birthing person has complete control of it, and they’re pretty easy to use (4).
Some things to consider about using a TENS unit is that you'll probably need help placing the pads on your back, for some people it only gives them good relief in early labor, they are hard to come by here, especially if you use the recommended obstetric TENS units, you absolutely cannot use them in water, and if you want massage or counterpressure, your support people will have to get a little bit creative to work around the electrodes (4).
Additionally, some people should not use a TENS unit for safety reasons. You shouldn't use one if you have a cardiac pacemaker, have been diagnosed with heart disease or epilepsy, or if you have injured or inflamed skin (such as a rash, eczema, or psoriasis) where the electrodes would be applied.
After taking a training and doing research on the best overall TENS units available, I found that the Babycare Elle TENS are a wonderful option for birthing people because of their high-quality, comfortable design, and user friendliness. I strongly encourage anyone interested in having a more comfortable birthing experience to give TENS units a try. They're not just for people who intend to have an unmedicated birth. This can be a great option if you are interested in using medication like an epidural but you want to wait until you're further along in your labor. TENS units can be used with continuous monitoring as well, so this could be helpful if you find you need to be induced.
Lastly, I want to stress that there is a difference between a TENS unit you can buy at a pharmacy and an obstetric TENS unit which are what I carry. Obstetric TENS units have been specifically designed to ease the discomfort people feel during labor. They’re battery operated, yet very powerful. The models that I have include a boost function which allows you with the press of a button to increase the intensity and provide a continuous flow of electric stimulation for the length of the contraction. Once your contraction is over, you can turn off the boost setting, and it will revert to a milder, pulsing setting. Furthermore, these units have a streamlined control system, while still being completely customizable. Their wires are very fine to avoid feeling bulky on your back so that you can lay down in comfort, and the electrodes are long so that they can deliver the electric stimulation over a larger area of your body (6).
I truly believe TENS units have the potential to be a game-changer for the birth community here in Madison, if only more people knew about them. For more information, check out the links below, and if it looks like something that might be of interest to you, shoot me a message!
Have you heard of using TENS units for labor? Tell me about it in the comments :)