Review of TENS Unit after Surgery for a Broken Arm

When I broke my radius and my ulna in early April 2009, I needed surgery to implant a plate and screws, as is common these days for broken arms. While I was waiting for the anesthesiaologist to make his appearance, a woman came in to explain that they would be sending me home with a "TENS unit".

The TENS Unit would send small electrical pulses to my arm which would help control my post-surgery pain, she said. But the "really cool thing" was that it is was mine to keep, and that patients often found the TENS Unit really helpful for other family members down the road, to treat things like pulled muscles. And, not to worry, she said, my insurance would cover it.

Even though the whole encounter felt a tad more like a sales pitch than a medical consultation, I didn't question her much, except to make sure I understood how to use the TENS unit, and my husband perked up and wondered if it would help his back pain.

When the anesthesiaologist arrived, he explained I would be receiving a "nerve block". They would deaden the nerves in my arm from the shoulder down before the surgery, and I shouldn't feel anything for 12 to 18 hours. For me, the block lasted about 6 hours.

Back home after the short, out-pateint surgery, I took a Percocet about 9:30 p.m., as ordered, ate a peanut butter sandwich, and fell asleep. I woke at midnight in the worst pain I've ever expereienced - yes, worse than childbirth. I was afraid to take another Percocet at first, since my prescription was to take one every 6 hours, so I started to fiddle with the dials on the TENS unit. It didn't help a bit.

Around 2 a.m. I came to my senses, realizing that some crazy folks take lots of Percocet "recreationally", and I started to ignore the 6 hour recommendation. The pain meds helped as long as I took them about every three hours, but the TENS unit wasn't helping a bit. Luckily, the severe pain only lasted a few days. I switched back to Vicodin on the third day and stopped taking the pain meds completely before my 10 day followup appointment.

Fast forward to the arrival of insurance statements and medical bills. I am starting to make sense of the mismatched paperwork. Aside from one claim that the hospital apparently filed with the incorrect Patient ID, the only "Amount You Owe" according to my insurance company so far is $135.80 on a claim for $850 on the day of my surgery. I do not have a matching statement or bill from the hospital for this amount, so I asked the insurance company to give me the claim description. You guessed it - it's for the TENS Unit.

"TENS" stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. According to About.com, "TENS units should only be used under the direction of a doctor, physical therapist, or occupational therapist." So much for using this gadget for my husband's back pain or future pulled muscles.

I found various models available online, starting as low as $39. Austin Medical Equipment carries the exact same model as the one "given" to me, regularly priced at $125 and currently on sale for $69.

Someone is making a nice fat profit (or commission?) from my TENS unit.

While I was searching for price information, I kept noticing that the vairous medical indications listed in advertisements did not specifically include pain from a broken arm.

Dr. Towery's Healthy Solutions claims that the TENS Unit is "Recommended by Doctors and Pain Specialist for: Back Pain, joint and muscle pain, herniated discs, arthritis, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, tendinitis and many other acute and chronic pain syndromes."

The TENS unit is listed on the "Alternative Therapies List for Broken Arm" at Healthline and under "Alternative Medicine" by the Mayo Clinic for "Frozen Shoulder" (a condition that may result from having your arm in a sling for several weeks, or surgery in which your arm is immobilized for a prolonged period of time, neither of which apply to me).

I have always been under the impression that medical insurance rarely covers "alternative" medicine, but I guess I am missing something. They "allowed" $679.01 on the claim for my TENS unit. 

My sister pointed out that they had to cut my muscles to put the plates in, so maybe I'm overreacting here a bit. But adding "surgery" to the search terms "tens unit" and "broken arm" did not immediately reveal any more relevant information.

I'll gladly return the unit in exchange for full credit. So far, I don't even know who charged for the unit, but I am not planning to pay the bill. The effectiveness of the device was questionable, and the "prescription" was misrepresented to me.

My insurance company pointed out that no one should have told me it would be covered, since they were not looking at the terms in my contract, which of course makes sense. But my husband recalls just as clearly as I do that we were told it would be covered. And it was not presented as if I had a choice.

TENS Units have many positive reviews online, including Amazon where one happy customer posted, "If anyone is looking for a great TENS Unit and needs a solution for moderate to severe back pain, the ReliaMed 350 is the TENS Unit for you!" But I was taken advantage of--sold something I didn't need, and that didn't work. The insurance company was overcharged, and even my co-pay is more than what the unit costs in the open market.

I continue to believe this kind of crap is the problem with our health care system in the United States. Everyone worries that socialized medicine would be even worse, considering the stories about government spending (like the $435 billed to the Pentagon for a hammer - a stretch of the truth, as it turns out). Socialized medicine can't possibly be any worse than the current problems in the industry.

Seventeen of Thirty

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Comments 13 comments

winterrobin 7 years ago

This is very much like what happen to me.the insurance didn't cover much at all,I was told that would be no problem .I had to come up with around 700.00 bucks in the end.

It was not until much later I found out they can be had for much cheaper. To make matters worse the dumb thing stopped working after a short amount of time.I did find it helped with pain from disk problems but that will not help me now because the dumb thing is broken !!!


dineane profile image

dineane 7 years ago from North Carolina Author

winterrobin, it's shameful, isn't it? Why isn't this considered price gauging? I'm still researching...doubt I'll find a reasonable explanation. Thanks for your comment!


Teresa McGurk profile image

Teresa McGurk 7 years ago from The Other Bangor

I woke up in the recovery room after surgery with that pain you described you had at 2:00am and had to ask repeatedly for the blocker, which I finally got. I can't wait to get the survey the hospital always sends out, so that I can write about the guy (I have his name and everything) and his reluctance to give me the blocker. How the hell did he think I was feeling? Good grief.

The TENS unit sounds like a right waste of money. Glad you had the Percocet!!

(I'm sorry I'm only now catching up on your hubs about your broken arm -- it was too close to home to read about before now! -- how's the mobility in your wrist? and how is your thumb -- still numb? Mine is slowly returning to normal, but I still can't angle my hand correctly to type without it hurting after a little while.)


dineane profile image

dineane 7 years ago from North Carolina Author

Teresa, I totally understand - no apologies necessary! My arm is so much better - it was funny with that typing thing, one day I was trying and it hurt like crazy, then after my fishing trip it worked like it was supposed to!

I need to do an update on the TENS unit...thanks for commenting and bring this one back to my attention!


Dr. Rob Simmons 7 years ago

I hope your arm is doing better. Just wanted to mention that you might want to find a chiropractor in your area who adjust extremities. By definition, if you arm broke it moved out of place. Checking the alignment of the joint will help with healing and scar tissue formation as well as the long term function of the elboe and shoulder.

Sorry to hear about that ridiculus charge for the tens unit. shouldn't be anywhere near that price.


dineane profile image

dineane 7 years ago from North Carolina Author

Thanks, Dr. Rob. I need to do an update to my broken arm story. I'm actually doing fine with my arm at this point. Had a checkup last week and my doctor said he's like to do another set of x-rays in about 6 weeks "if that was okay with me". I made the appointment, but I don't think I'm going to keep it. At this point, if it's "not healing properly", tough sh*t. I'm doing almost as much as I've ever done with my left arm. I need my regular physical this month, and then I think I'll have had as much as I can take of the health "care" industry for a while (no offense to you!)


John Doe 7 years ago

Actually, you would be surprised to know that after taking into account your deductibles, the percentage that your insurance actually covers, and all of the costs associated, the actual amount that the doctor gets for the tens unit is most likely closer to $80-100, not the several hundred that you are thinking. See, the doctors HAVE to charge these amounts for their treatments because if they do not, they won't get paid enough and lose money of the treatment or equipment. You may want to blame the physicians for this because they are the ones submitting the bill, which is all that you see, but, until you can better understand the way insurance works and what the physicians actually receive rather than what they bill, it's not very fair of you to make uneducated criticisms when they are aimed in the wrong direction....


dineane profile image

dineane 7 years ago from North Carolina Author

Thanks for your comment, John Doe, but the point is that they entire system should not require so much "understanding". My doctors fees should have been included in the claim that was submitted for "doctors fees." And I still maintain that for my purposes, the TENS unit was not a smart Rx. My doc asked how it was doing for me at the first followup - and I told him I wasn't using it anymore, that it was completely useless to me. Over the next few months I received 3 separate shipments with absolutely no paperwork, no statement, no explanation, containing accessories for the unit. I finally searched the company name "Medical Finance Resources" online and emailed them through the "contact us" link and asked why they kept shipping this stuff to me. They responded that it was prescribed and auto shipped by my dr. I told them to stop sending them and I'd like to know how much my insurance company has paid for crap I didn't need or want. Of course since none of us "understand the way insurance works", I'll never know.


Shibu 6 years ago

So let me be clear. You had surgery for a broken arm and in your own words "the only 'Amount You Owe' according to' your "insurance company so far is $135.80" and that makes you upset? You are so incensed with this $135.80 charge that you are ready to throw out the best medical system in the world for socialized medicine. You really don't deserve the coverage & care you received. You should got to Canada or the U.K. or Mexico & go through the same situation & see how happy you are with the results.

The fact that it didn't work for you on the 1 day you tried to use it doesn't mean it was not an appropriate treatment. All treatments do not work for everyone. It does seem like it was a bit expensive. But look at the overall amount paid. How much did the surgeon actually get paid? I'm betting this amount is considerably less than what you expected. How much did the Hospital get paid? Consider all the employees & equipment the Hospital had to pay for to give you the care you needed.

I hope your arm feel better now.


dineane profile image

dineane 6 years ago from North Carolina Author

Shibu, I actually never ended up receiving a bill for the $135.80 - that is just what my insurance company showed I would have to pay, after they paid $679.01 for what is probably a $100 device. This was ONLY for the device - not for doctor's care, etc., etc.; all of those costs were supposedly itemized on separate bills and insurance statements. The point is that the "system" grossly overcharged for this particular ineffective device. I know that I am extremely fortunate that, in the end, my insurance covered almost everything. That in my mind still does not excuse the obvious waste in the system. If you are correct in your assumption that this seemingly grossly inflated price includes "overhead", then at the least I believe the reporting and accounting practices need serious attention.


DePuy Pinnacle Lawsuit 5 years ago

Surgery can be scary even if it's just on the arms. I have had a Pinnacle hip replacement in the past and I perfectly remember the painful and dreadful experience.

What's worse is that now I'm feeling pain on my hips again. I'm considering filing a lawsuit since there are reports stating that the DePuy Pinnacle hip implant could loosen prematurely and cause pain.


jon 4 years ago

should come to the uk like every one its all free over here


sadia 17 months ago

I was sliped from bike and i had a frecture on my right hand. My bone had been broken in the middle from uper side of elbow then i had surgery. Doctor put a steel plate in my hand and joint my bone .

now i am Feeling that my masals are weak dr. Advise me about thoropy. Now i am using tens unit for thoropy

my question is that is it useful or harmful on joint bone with steel plate ? Could tens unit damage plate in side my hand. Please help me and reply me

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