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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