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Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) Therapy in Dentistry

Zap! Can giving yourself a series of small shocks actually help reduce pain? That's the science behind transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, also known as TENS therapy. This therapy uses a low-voltage electrical current to help reduce pain in targeted areas throughout your body. Though commonly used to treat issues like arthritis or strained muscles, the dental community has adopted this technology for oral pain management, too. Find out how TENS therapy works to minimize pain for everything from dental restorations to TMJ disorders.

How Does TENS Therapy Work?

TENS therapy uses a small, battery-powered device to deliver electrical impulses through electrodes placed directly on your skin. Experts hold two theories about how transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation works. Both involve tricking your brain by blocking its perception of pain — the first by stimulating the nerve cells and the second by raising the level of endorphins. Either way, while the TENS unit does its job, you never register the full power of those pain signals.

Although it sounds like something out of a futuristic science-fiction movie, TENS therapy is surprisingly old. An article in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dentistry reports that people in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome used the electric ray fish's electrical shock to relieve pain. Even more, the first use of electricity for dental pain relief was recorded over 100 years ago.

What Is a Dental Tens Unit?

Fortunately, modern-day TENS therapy has advanced considerably and no longer involves using an aquatic creature to alleviate pain. Today's TENS devices include a hand-held controller with electrodes connected by small wires. You place the electrodes on your skin near the nerve where the pain is located. A dial or button on the controller allows you to adjust the intensity of the electrical current.

You can purchase a TENS unit for personal use, but these devices are not particularly powerful. That's good news since you want to avoid 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. Intense TENS devices use both high-intensity and high-frequency currents.

What Conditions Can TENS Therapy Treat in Dentistry?

Dental professionals have used TENS therapy to minimize pain for a variety of oral procedures and conditions. Research continues to explore the ways TENS therapy can provide pain relief for:

  • Dental treatment for children. Because many kids fear needles, the use of TENS therapy has reduced anxiety while still controlling pain for procedures like cavity preparations, minor extractions, and root canals.
  • Dental treatment for adults. TENS therapy has provided successful anesthesia for various adult procedures — from cavity preparation to dental implants and even extractions.
  • Chronic oral pain. Many have successfully used TENS therapy for chronic pain associated with TMJ disorders and trigeminal neuralgia.
  • Xerostomia, or dry mouth. The use of TENS therapy has increased the salivary flow rate for those with dry mouth.

What Are the Benefits of TENS Therapy?

TENS therapy boasts several benefits for those looking to block out oral pain:

  • The non-invasive method uses no needles, making it perfect for patients who need anesthesia but get squeamish around sharp objects.
  • When compared to local anesthesia, TENS therapy leaves no lingering numbness or other effects after the procedure.
  • You can also self-administer TENS therapy to manage chronic pain — such as a TMJ disorder, so no frequent trips to the dentist are needed.

Should You Use TENS Therapy?

If you have TMJ disorder or a fear of needles, TENS therapy might provide needed pain relief. Those with cancer, epilepsy, heart disease or implanted devices like a pacemaker should talk to their physician or dentist before using a TENS unit. Work with your dentist to determine if TENS therapy will work for your procedure or condition. They can answer all your questions and guide your way toward a pain-free smile.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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