Lower Back Pain Relief: TENS Unit

TENS Unit - Lower Back Pain

I have a lot of lower back pain, and I searched for months for lower back pain relief. I finally discovered TENS units, and my TENS unit is a real lifesaver. My back pain began several years ago. At first, it was just a once-in-a-while ache, but it steadily worsened. I went to my regular doctor, who sent me to a rheumatologist. The rheumatologist ordered an MRI that showed nerve damage, so he sent me to an orthopedist. The orthopedist had chiropractors, physical therapists, and massage therapists in the office with him, so it was sort of a “one stop shop” for my back pain. I took advantage of the whole team! In fact, this group is where I learned about how effective the little units can be for lower back pain relief.

Millions suffer from back pain, especially lower back pain.
Millions suffer from back pain, especially lower back pain.

Lower Back Pain and Foraminal Stenosis

The MRIs showed that I have foraminal stenosis that was causing my lower back pain. In other words, the openings around my vertebrae where the nerves exit have closed up because of osteophytes. There’s bone growing where it shouldn’t be, so the nerves don’t have enough room. The compressed nerves cause lower back pain, in my case.

Foraminal stenosis can occur in any part of the spine – in the cervical, the thoracic, or the lumbar. The lumbar spine is the most common site for foraminal stenosis, with lower back pain as the major symptom. The pain can also affect the leg and foot, and the condition can also cause tingling and numbness.

With my lumbar forminal stenosis, I sometimes have severe back pain, leg pain, and numbness. Oftentimes, I can relieve much of the pain by getting into a certain position, but I also have very painful muscle spasms at times, and I couldn’t escape them with repositioning or with anything else…yet.

Therapeutic massage might offer temporary relief from back pain.
Therapeutic massage might offer temporary relief from back pain.

In Search of Lower Back Pain Relief

I had never had much faith in chiropractors, even though I have friends who swear by them for their back pain. These particular chiropractors, however, used something called “Cox decompression.” Cox decompression is like traction without being placed in a traction contraption. The Cox table stretches your spine, which often serves to relieve back pain. I always refer to it jokingly as “the rack.” Decompression helped with my lower back pain, but the results didn’t last long, and I couldn’t very well take the Cox decompression device home with me.

I also tried physical therapy. It helped some, but some of the exercises were painful. When I reported this to the orthopedist, he told me not to continue physical therapy if it made my back pain worse. I tried therapeutic massage, which was wonderful for a short period of relief from lower back pain, but the effects didn’t last long enough. I tried an epidural injection, and I was great for three weeks, but then it wore off, and my back pain returned.

I felt like I was running out of options. I had a prescription for oxy and hydrocodone, but I hated taking the pain pills. They usually made me nauseous, and if I took phenergan with them to combat the nausea, all I could do was sleep. Also, I’ve always been very concerned about becoming addicted to pain medications. I’ve seen it happen to others, and I didn’t want it to happen to me. Surgery was an option, but all my doctors advised me to put off back surgery as long as I possibly could.

My wonderful, amazing, magical TENS unit!
My wonderful, amazing, magical TENS unit!

A TENS Unit?

Finally, one day my doctor suggested I try using a TENS machine. I’d never heard of a TENs unit, so I asked him to explain. He left the exam room and came back holding a small device with wires coming out of it. The box was about the size of a cell phone, and it had dials and buttons. It also had a clip on it that could be attached to a shirt or blouse, or to the waist of pants. I was definitely interested in the contraption. By that time, I was willing to try just about anything to relieve my lower back pain!

How to use a TENS unit.
How to use a TENS unit.

How does a TENS unit work?

To be honest, I think every doctor I’ve talked to about how TENS units work have each given me a different answer. Some think the electrical impulses interrupt the pain impulses, “confusing” the brain. Some doctors believe that TENS units affect the opioid receptors in the nervous system, serving as a “pain block.” Serotonin, the “feel good” neurotransmitter, might also be part of the reason a TENS unit works. A TENS unit with low frequency activates receptors in the spinal cord while releasing serotonin.

Front of TENS unit.
Front of TENS unit.

What's a TENS unit?

A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, unit, is a device that uses an electrical current to relieve pain, especially back pain. The TENS unit has leads and electrodes that attach to the wearer’s skin with sticky pads. The wearer can adjust just how much current they want to receive by using the dials on the TENS unit. The TENS unit I have uses batteries and has four leads. You can also use different shapes and sizes of pads for different areas.

The back of the TENS unit has a handy clip.
The back of the TENS unit has a handy clip.

My Experience with a TENS Unit

Not all doctors recommend using a TENS unit. Some studies show that TENS units are ineffective, while others show that TENS units can be very effective for chronic pain, especially pain due to osteoarthritis and musculoskeletal pain. Apparently, TENS units don't work on everyone, but when they do, they provide a welcome relief from back pain.

I really don’t care which studies say what. I only care about how my TENS unit helps with my lower back pain. When I’m having severe lower back pain from muscle spasms, hubby hooks me up to my TENS unit and I dial that sucker up to full power! The pain relief is almost instant, and my lower back pain is almost completely alleviated. My TENS unit is programmable, so I can choose how long I want it to stay active. I also have a choice of which kinds of impulses I want. For example, I might choose a steady impulse, or one that starts off weak and builds to a peak before dropping down again in intensity.

I’ll tell you this, too: My TENS unit hasn’t been very effective for nerve pain. In fact, I haven’t found anything that helps with that, other than some high-powered pain meds. For lower back pain and other back pain due to muscles, however, the TENS unit is awesome! If you're searching for lower back pain relief, a TENS machine is definitely worth a try. Really, it's one of the best investments I've ever made.

How to use a TENS unit:

How to place TENS patches:

More about TENS units:

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Comments 30 comments

Nelle Hoxie 5 years ago

Hi Holle, I had to come over and check out your review when I saw it listing in my FB feed. While I have back spasms, I am very lucky not to be in much pain. Although I have a friend who also suffers from stenosis in her lower back. Her Tens unit is a really big help to her.

I also have a neice who is six feet tall, a vegan, and very then, but suffers from a range of skeletal issues. She just told me a few months ago that she uses her Tens unit for her TMJ, her bad foot and shoulder.

You did a great job of explaining it and I enjoyed the vidoes.

tokigostudio1 profile image

tokigostudio1 5 years ago from Panama City Beach, Florida

I thought this was a really good, informative piece. My mother suffered a ruptured disc and compression in that section of her spine. She used a TENS unit until her surgery and I don't think she would have made it without one. I am glad that you said it isn't for everyone. Many people react differently to medication, remedies, and therapies.

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jenubouka 5 years ago

I have heard and seen these some time ago, there was a program about using it to treat MS. I had broke my butt(tail bone) about 12 years ago and still suffer from lower back pain and nerve damage, and a I refuse the pain med option because I wanted a more permanent solution, plus I was acting like superwoman when I was medicated and was causing more damage. Since then, I have turned to Yoga and Pilates. It took about 3 months for the pain to subside, but I tell ya what, over the long haul, it has done wonders, though I sure wish I had a TENS unit during those first months.

Lily Rose profile image

Lily Rose 5 years ago from East Coast

My husband recently had shoulder surgery and it was a "worker's comp" case. He pushed and pushed the nurse assigned to him for a TENS unit and finally got it and he was so happy - he swears by it and how much better he feels when he uses it!

Thelma Alberts profile image

Thelma Alberts 5 years ago from Germany

I have tried this TENS unit before. It is good for back pain but I still prepare the human hands that can massage me. Thanks for sharing this informative hub.

50 Caliber profile image

50 Caliber 5 years ago from Arizona

Holle the tens units rock for this application I like mine and a every other day regime helps, dust

drbj profile image

drbj 5 years ago from south Florida

Hi, Holle. You have definitely performed a humanitarian service by publicizing this TENS unit for folks who suffer severe back pain. I don't have that problem ... yet.

Do you s'pose the manufacturer might produce a newer product some day named ELEVENS? Just wonderin'.

katiedid101 profile image

katiedid101 5 years ago from Rural Iowa

Hey, Hollie. Thought I'd let you know that I am definitely going to look into this little jewel. I have suffered chronic neck and upper shoulder pain for a very long time and can't seem to get much relief from the doctor or chiropractor. I think this might be just what I need. Thanks!

MikeNV profile image

MikeNV 5 years ago from Henderson, NV

Stenosis... just one more in a long line of diseases that Doctors can not figure out how to cure, only to treat and often with drugs that cause more side effect problems. My 83 year old neihbor had it and it eventually got so bad he could no longer walk. Once he stopped walking he lasted 3 years.

ANY non-drug treatment that provides pain relief is a God Send. It's just too bad they can't figure out why Tens helps some people and not others.

One non-drug treatment people can consider for back pain is inversion table. You don't have to hang upside down it only takes a few degrees of incline and a few minutes to help relax the muscles and reduce the strain on the spinal discs. Stenoisis of course it probably wouldn't help as much because the oesteophytes are not going to pull apart.

Good article. Voting up.

Cardisa profile image

Cardisa 5 years ago from Jamaica

I have never heard of the TENS unit. I find that regular exercises and stretching helps me.

tirelesstraveler profile image

tirelesstraveler 5 years ago from California

Have used the TENS unit in my Chiropractors office. It works. Start low. Too much too fast will give you a "Whoopee" that will make you jump off your chair. Pilates is very helpful with lower back pain as well.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Hi, Nelle! I think I might kill someone over my TENS unit! (not really)

I was pretty sceptical that the thing would work, but I was desprerate at the time. It didn't take long for it to make a believer out of me!

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naturalsolutions 5 years ago

For me, I think the most effective way in taking this back pain off is just a matter of great massage. I believe that almost all muscle pain can be cure by massage.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Tokigo, I know exactly how your mother felt!

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

You poor thing. These pains must be awful. I am very glad these units help you. Nothing worse than pain. I wish I could do more for you than just sending you all my best wishes but they come from the bottom of my heart.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Jenu, glad you're doing better. Wish you had had a TENS machine to use during your recovery!

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Lily, I feel the same way about my TENS unit! They really are lifesavers for some folks.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Thelma, nothing like a good massage, but I don't have access to a massage therapist every time I need one. My TENS unit serves as a good substitute! lol

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Dusty, good to hear from another TENS user!

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

drbj - elevens...you kill me!!

50 Caliber profile image

50 Caliber 5 years ago from Arizona

Holle, mine is a 4 channel unit that goes from a tingle to a lightening bolt! A turn of the wrong knob gets your attention. I've set two 6 inch long pads to each side of my lumbar that covers the muscle through the length of the incision scar and tingles up slow tensing the muscles and ends with a quick zap and release. I'm fused by a cage system with rods and stand offs bolted into the vertebrae I think it's L-1 to to L-6 and it mainly works the muscle to ease or stop muscle spasms pulling on what no longer can be moved. It feels like a pair of hands pushing up from the bottom on each side of the spine then a quick push and release. A heating pad used with it often works well. I set it for light pulsing and put the unit in a belt pouch and wear it while moving about and so far it has been a good deal at stopping the muscle from pulling tight while I stand and have to stoop a bit while working at a task on a kitchen counter that I need to raise 6 inches because of my height.

A good article to an option that is better than pain pills or muscle relaxers while mobile.


habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Katie, when a TENS unit works, it works well. I hope you're one of the people it works on!

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Mike, I asked my doc about an inversion table, but like you said, it wouldn't be very effective for foraminal stenosis.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Cardisa, stretching is good, but it won't stop my painful muscle spasms.

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

True, Traveler, but when you're in severe pain, I don't think the current can get too strong. lol

habee profile image

habee 5 years ago from Georgia Author

Natural, I love a deep massage, but it's not always an option. I can use my TENS unit anytime, anywhere.

saito 4 years ago

how to do the application pain for cervical spondylosis for use TENS?

habee profile image

habee 4 years ago from Georgia Author

Saito, I don't have that, but I assume you apply the TENS unit to where the pain is most intense.

RandyMan 3 years ago

I've had chronic low back pain and leg pain for the past 4 years. A tens unit is what gave me my life back and lessened the pain quite substantially. I take no medication for my pain (nothing really worked). I wear this device 24/7 and it helps big time!

habee profile image

habee 3 years ago from Georgia Author

Randy, I'm glad the TENS helped you!

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