Pregnancy is an exciting time of your life, but it comes with dozens of changes to your body and more than a few growing pains. At a time when your options for painkillers are limited, antenatal classes often recommend finding alternative pain relief methods. The right combination of pain relief strategies can go a long way to making you more comfortable during pregnancy and labour. To that end, TENS machines are a popular form of pain relief that use electrical stimulation to ease certain types of common pregnancy pains without side effects. Many expectant mothers find these machines to be very useful throughout pregnancy and labour, but there are a few usage guidelines that are worth keeping in mind.
What is a TENS Machine?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. It’s a process where electrical stimulation is applied across the skin. A TENS machine delivers tiny electric shocks through a series of electrodes to stimulate the nerves under the skin and provide relief from some types of pain. TENS machines run on batteries and require no other medications, making them ideal for pregnant women who may not be able to take certain other types of pain relief.
When Should You Use a TENS Machine?
Like other medical treatments, a TENS machine should only be used on the advice of your doctor or another medical professional. These devices aren’t suitable for everyone or for all types of pain, and some people may find they do more harm than good when used in the wrong ways. Speak to your doctor about the use of TENS machines and whether they can recommend the devices.
The most common use of a TENS machine during pregnancy is to help ease the pain of labour. They are often recommended for use in the early stages of labour – especially if you are still at home and are yet to reach the birthing clinic. The benefit of TENS machines for controlling labour pains is that they are small and simple, allowing you to move around while alleviating pain. The electrodes attached to the unit can also be moved around your body to target pain in specific areas.
How a TENS Machine Works
TENS machines deliver tiny electric shocks to stimulate the nerves under the skin. While research into these machines has so far been inconclusive, many women report that TENS machines are effective at controlling labour and pregnancy pains. TENS machines are thought to work in one of two ways:
- Set to a high pulse rate of 90-130 pulses per minute, the stimulation of a TENS machine blocks pain messages that are being sent to the brain from elsewhere. This works on the idea that pain messages are delivered to the brain through a gate mechanism, and that simulating the correct nerves can close the gate. Effectively, the brain is too busy dealing with the minor stimulation of the TENS machine and other, more painful signals are ignored.
- Set to a low pulse rate of 2-5 pulses per minute, the TENS machine can stimulate your body and cause it to release endorphins. Endorphins are a special type of hormone released by your brain in response to pain and stress. They produce a soothing effect and are well known to act as a natural painkiller.
How to Use a TENS Machine
While research into TENS machines has been inconclusive, many expectant mothers still find them helpful in managing pains during pregnancy and labour. Antenatal classes and doctors can provide a wealth of information on how and when a TENS machine should be used. It’s important to follow professional advice when using TENS machines, as the technology can cause irritation or other complications when used incorrectly.
There are a few guidelines to remember to make sure you’re using your TENS machine safely:
- Switch off the machine before applying the electrodes. It’s also a good idea to test the machine before use by holding an electrode between your fingers and checking that it creates a tingling sensation.
- Always apply electrodes to clean, dry and healthy skin. TENS machines may cause irritation if the electrodes are applied to broken skin or inflamed areas.
- Turn the machine up gradually. The tingling sensation should be noticeable but not painful. The sensation should decrease as your body gets used to it, so continue slowly increasing the frequency during the session.
- Avoid placing electrodes on the sides or front of your neck, or placing them too close to your eyes and mouth.
- Keep TENS sessions to 15-20 minutes at a time. You can use the machine multiple times throughout the day, but continuous use can cause irritation.
Consult your doctor or midwife before using a TENS machine during pregnancy. There are certain circumstances where they are unsuitable for use, especially if you suffer from epilepsy, heart disease or have a pacemaker.