Zap! Can giving yourself a series of small shocks actually help reduce pain? That's the thinking behind transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation therapy. This therapy involves the use of low-voltage electrical current to help reduce pain in certain areas of the body. Usually, people undergoing the therapy are given a small device and shown how to use it at home by their doctor or dentist.
How Does TENS Therapy Work?
Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy works by tricking the brain, the Cleveland Clinic explains. The electrical currents produced by a TENS device travel through the skin and into the nerves and prevent the nerves from sending pain signals to the brain.
Although it sounds like something out of a futuristic science-fiction movie, TENS therapy is surprisingly old. The Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry reports that people in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome used the electrical shock produced by the marbled electric ray (a type of fish) to relieve pain.
Fortunately, modern-day TENS therapy has advanced considerably and no longer involves the use of an aquatic creature to alleviate pain. Today's TENS devices are typically small, hand-held machines that look like an MP3 player (as the Mayo Clinic describes them). To use the device, you place small electrodes on your skin near the area where there is pain. The electrodes are connected to the controller by small wires. The controller typically has a dial or buttons that allow you to adjust the intensity of the electrical current.
Several types of TENS devices are available. The devices meant for consumer use, which you're likely to find in the drugstore or online, are not particularly powerful. That's good news since you don't want to run the risk of giving yourself too much of a shock. A conventional TENS device, meant to be used by a medical professional in a clinical setting, typically produces low-intensity pulsed currents with a high frequency, according to the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry. Intense TENS devices use both high-intensity and high-frequency currents.
Conditions TENS Therapy Helps Treat
TENS therapy is often used to help treat conditions that cause pain or as a therapy to alleviate acute or chronic pain. A review of studies published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews suggests that there is tentative evidence to support the fact that TENS therapy can relieve acute pain, but notes that many of the studies reviewed had small sample sizes or weren't blind.
In 2009, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) ruled that TENS therapy wasn't recommended for treatment of lower back pain, due to insufficient evidence of its effectiveness. That same year, the AAN ruled that TENS therapy could be considered as a treatment for diabetic neuropathy. TENS therapy may help relieve chronic pain caused by conditions, such as fibromyalgia, tendinitis and bursitis.
Using TENS for Dental Issues
TENS therapy might be a suitable treatment for temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorders, although some of the studies conducted to test its effectiveness have been small. One study published in the Dental Research Journal noted that TENS therapy could be used as an initial symptomatic approach to treating TMJ disorders, but most likely wasn't a radical or definitive method of managing the condition.
Additional research has looked at the use of a TENS device as an alternative to a dental anesthetic during treatment. The research has found that TENS therapy can help reduce pain during a dental treatment (such as a cavity filling) and might also reduce the discomfort produced by the injection of another anesthetic.
Should You Try TENS Therapy?
If you have TMJ disorder or are concerned about the needle used to administer an anesthetic during a dental treatment, TENS therapy might provide some relief. The Journal of Rehabilitation and Assistive Technologies Engineering suggests that the only people who should be cautious using TENS therapy are those who have an implanted device like a pacemaker.
Your dentist can help you decide if using a TENS device would help you and can recommend the right type of device to try. They might also adjust or program the device for you so that it produces the appropriate amount of electrical current. Feel free to ask your dentist any questions you have about TENS therapy to find out if it's the right option for you.