Are you looking for a drug-free form of pain relief during labour? Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is an easy to use electrical unit that offers a safe alternative to drugs during labour. TENS is a small portable box operated by battery. It consists of 2 to 4 flexible stimulating electrodes which stick to the skin (placed on either side of your sacrum or low back). The unit can be used at home or in the hospital during labour. It is recommended to use even before active labor begins.
How does TENS work?
There are different theories about how TENS works. TENS sends electrical pulses which are thought to ‘distract’ or ‘block’ the body’s pain signal so that the experience of pain is replaced with the TENS sensation. As a result, the sensation of pain is decreased. Another theory is that TENS increases the endorphin levels (hormones that act as natural pain killers) in your body.
When is it used?
TENS is most effective if used from the very beginning of labour, as it takes some time for your body to adjust to the TENS sensation and release endorphins. It has been shown to be particularly helpful to women with back pain during labour, allowing them to stay up and be active throughout the labour.
In a systematic review conducted by Heywood and Ho (1990), it was concluded that “safety was confirmed, pain relief was variable, labours were often shorter, and overall, mothers were very satisfied with their labours.”
In a randomized clinical trial study conducted in 1986, it was found that significantly fewer women using real TENS needed analgesia (pain medications) or epidural anesthesia (a “spinal”) to complete their labours (Harrison et al., 1986).
The TENS worked great during early labour to take the edge off of the contractions, and in doing so helped me to maintain my internal focus as contractions increased in intensity. I also used the TENS to stimulate certain acupuncture points during early labour which helped my labour to progress, and in turn left me with more energy for transition and pushing. The TENS is an easy to use, functional and helpful tool that I would encourage women to have available, especially during early labour.
Allison Redding Registered Acupuncturist, Nurse, Doula & Mom
A few details:
- If using TENS, do not use in a bath or shower. It also shouldn’t be used if you have a pacemaker.
- There have been instances when a TENS has interfered with an internal fetal scalp electrode, so make sure to check with your doctor.
- Learn to us your TENS unit before labour.
- When labour starts, place the electrodes on either side of your sacrum/lumbar area. Depending on where you place them, you will affect the nerves that conduct to the uterus, cervix, vagina and perineum.
- During each contraction, the idea is for the woman to turn the self-adjusted knob up to help with pain relief. When the contraction is complete, the TENS unit can be turned back down in intensity.
Where to get instructions on using it & where to rent a TENS?
TENS units are available for rent at Reach Physio for $20 a week. You will also need your own set of adhesive electrodes for $15. It is recommended that you book a 30 minute session with one of our physiotherapists to learn how to set up and use the unit.
Download a TENS Rental Brochure