Do Portable TENS Units Work for Pain Relief?

Updated on November 8, 2017

I suffer from chronic pain in my middle and upper back. The pain gets so bad at times, I have a hard time standing up. Chiropractic treatment helps keep my pain under control but due to insurance, I can only afford to go once a month. So, I needed a solution that would reduce my pain between appointments. I heard about the Santamedical TENS unit electronic pulse massagers and decided to give it a try.

What Is a TENS Unit?

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. These units use sticky electrodes, placed on painful areas of the body, to deliver pulses of current through the electrodes to the sore muscles. This feels like a tingling sensation. Higher settings can cause muscles to twitch. TENS units are FDA approved for over-the-counter use. If you've ever been to a chiropractor or physical therapist, you may have used a professional unit as part of your treatment.

How Do TENS Units Reduce Pain?

According to WebMD, this isn't known. One possibility is they stimulate nerves and eliminate the sensation of pain.

Some people feel less pain when the electrical impulses are delivered. This could be because stimulating the nerves blocks other pain signals. Another theory is that stimulating the nerves may help the body produce natural painkillers called endorphins.
-- TENS for Back Pain, WebMD

Do They Work?

My TENS unit doesn't eliminate my pain, but it definitely helps. Simple household activities like laundry and cooking caused so much pain, I would have to lie down for an hour or two afterwards. Now I put on the electrodes, put the unit in my pocket, wrap the wires around so they don't get pulled out and I can remain on my feet without having severe pain afterwards. I have pain in different areas of my back, so I move the sticky electrodes every 15 minutes. It's become so much easier to get chores done and I don't have severe pain afterwards. Sometimes when my back pain is unbearable, I'll run the unit for a couple of hours and it helps a lot.

I did have a wrist injury recently though. I used the TENS unit to reduce the pain but it had no effect at all. Ultimately you'll have to try one to see if it works for your pain.

What You'll Need

Once you've purchased your TENS unit, you'll need a few more things:

  • Cotton balls and rubbing alcohol to clean your skin before putting on the electrodes. This will extend their lifespan. My electrodes last for several weeks before losing their stickiness.
  • A set of electrodes. My unit came with four. I bought a pack of 40. The ones I bought turned out to be larger and more effective than the electrodes that came with the unit because they cover a larger area.
  • Rechargeable batteries and a charger. My unit requires 4 AAA batteries. It's cheaper to recharge them than to buy batteries often. Don't buy a unit that requires batteries that can't be recharged. IcyHot has a TENS unit that requires 3V CR2032 batteries. This could become expensive to operate.
  • I bought Parker Labs Tensive Conductive Adhesive Gel to increase the life of the electrodes. It didn't work out for me. It was too sticky and messy. I bought the pack of 40 electrodes instead. It costs more but is less trouble. However, it's something you may want to look into.
  • A box to put everything in. I bought a fancy box with a lid from Ross for $6. It fits my TENS unit, electrodes, battery charger, alcohol and cotton balls. I keep it in the living room because it looks nice. It's a great way to keep your unit nearby without having your living room look like a pharmacy.

I have the Santamedical TENS unit
I have the Santamedical TENS unit

Which TENS Unit Should You Buy

I bought the Santamedical Tens handheld electronic pulse massager unit. I've been using it for about 6 months without any problems. This is one of the most popular devices. The truMedic TENS unit electronic pulse massager is another popular and similarly priced unit. Both cost around $30-$40 and can be used with rechargeable batteries. Both offer the same features. There are others you can look into but these two brands are very popular and have lots of reviews you can read before making a decision.

Review of the Trumedic TENS Unit

Questions & Answers


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      • Learn Things Web profile image

        Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California


        I've read comments from people using them for sinus pain. You can search online for the best areas to place the electrodes.

      • carter06 profile image

        Mary 3 years ago from Cronulla NSW

        I'm glad to know this info about the daughter suffers terrible migraines with neck and back ache..I was going to look into one to see if they were useful for her..I wonder if they might work for chronic sinus sufferers? Thanks for this info..cheers

      • Learn Things Web profile image

        Learn Things Web 3 years ago from California

        Brie Hoffman,

        I didn't know that. It's great that they're covered.


        I was worried that it wouldn't work for me because I paid around $60 for everything. Thankfully it does help. But some reviewers do say they didn't help them.

      • DealForALiving profile image

        Sam Deal 3 years ago from Earth

        It's too bad the unit didn't do much for you.

      • Brie Hoffman profile image

        Brie Hoffman 3 years ago from Manhattan

        My uncle sells these, did you know that in many cases medicare or medicaid or whatever the government program is..will pay for these?