How Pain Works
Before you can understand how a TENS unit functions, you first must gain an understanding of how pain works. Pain is caused when an area of your body is injured or unhealthy in some way, which causes the nerve receptors in that area to send a message to your brain. That message is conveyed to your brain through a complex electrical system that is still not well understood by medical professionals. Once your brain receives that signal, it processes the message, and then reacts. At this point, you begin to experience pain.
In general, pain is a healthy part of your bodily functions. Without pain, you might never notice when you’re hurt or sick. Even worse, you might not realize that something you’re doing is hurting your body, so you wouldn’t know to remedy the situation. However, chronic pain is unnecessary and can be so debilitating that it becomes essential to find ways to alleviate the pain. Unfortunately, many people are unable to find effective methods of pain relief without turning to drugs or invasive procedures.
What A TENS Unit Does
Since TENS units are able to interfere with the way that nerve receptors identify pain for your brain, they can provide immediate and incredibly effective pain relief for many people. By adjusting the current, voltage, and pulse width, you can create an entirely customized experience that successfully addresses your specific needs with varying intensity levels.
In order to stimulate the appropriate nerve receptors, the electrodes that are attached to a TENS unit are positioned around the painful area. The TENS principles are the same for all parts of the body, so the electrodes can be placed on any area of the body. Once the electrodes are in place, the TENS unit begins to release electrical pulses that pass from the electrodes and into the skin to stimulate certain nerve pathways.
These electrical currents feel like gentle tingling or massaging to the patient. As this sensation increases, your perception of pain is interrupted, causing your pain to decrease and even disappear. The beauty of this procedure is that it can successfully provide pain relief without forcing patients to submit to invasive procedures or drugs that can cause harmful side effects.
Why Does It Work?
The short answer to this question is that we aren’t completely sure. Even though we can see that TENS units are able to offer intense pain relief, there are still disparate theories about why TENS technology actually works. Currently, there are two major theories on the subject – the Gate Control theory and the Endorphin Release theory.
As mentioned above, the Gate Control theory served as the inspiration to research TENS. This theory suggests that there is a neural mechanism in the spinal cord that is able to “open” or “close” in order to control the flow of nerve signals that are allowed to reach the brain. When the “gate” closes, nerve messages such as pain signals are no longer able to alert the brain to possible problems.
Within the framework of this theory, researchers suggest that TENS therapy actually causes the “gate” to close in order to prevent pain messages from reaching the brain. If the brain is never alerted to the discomfort in the injured area, the pain won’t actually manifest. This theory is generally respected, but since researchers still don’t fully understand the way that the body processes the signals sent by nerve receptors, we still can’t know for sure if this theory is valid.
The Endorphin Release theory is based on the idea that electrical impulses can enhance the body’s production of chemicals like enkaphalins and endorphins. Both of these substances can act as natural pain relievers, which would suggest that they are capable of blocking nerve receptors from sending pain signals to the brain without the need for a “gate.” The beauty of this theory is that it suggests that the body can produce completely natural pain relievers without the need for dangerous drugs.