Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) for Labor Pain

A laboring Mom using a TENS unit.

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Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is a small, handheld device that can be used to emit mild bursts of electricity through the skin. This helps stimulate the nerve fibers and can work to help block pain signals in labor. The good news is that a TENS unit does not keep you from moving around or assuming various labor positions.

How TENS Is Done

It is best to receive training and your TENS unit before labor. This can be done by your doctor, midwife, physical therapist or other trained professional.

TENS is applied by placing four electrodes on your back. Two go above your bottom and two just before your ribs on either side of your spine. These are attached to a small unit about the size of a large pack of gum by wires. The controls will be on the actual unit.

What TENS Feels Like

The thought of sending electrical stimulation through your skin might be frightening. Most women report that it feels more like a buzzing sensation. If you are in pain from the TENS unit, adjust the intensity downward. You might think of electric shocks as a source of reference, but the TENS unit is not that strong, nor do you have the ability to electrocute yourself.

When to Use TENS

TENS seems to be most effective for:

  • Back pain in labor
  • When it is started earlier in labor.
  • For as long in labor, as you believe it to be helpful
  • Women who have a TENS unit readily available
  • Women who have practitioners that support the use of TENS

When to Not Use TENS

There are a few times that a TENS unit might not be used:

  • You cannot use a TENS unit when you are in the tub or shower. However, you can use it in between times when you are not in the water.
  • If there is irritation from the glue that holds the electrodes onto the skin.
  • You don't find TENS to be helpful.
  • You cannot find a TENS unit.
  • TENS is interfering with medical equipment like electronic fetal monitoring. (This doesn't happen often but if it does happen, turn the unit off during periods of monitoring.)

Where to Get a TENS Unit

You can get a TENS unit from a physical therapist, a prescription from your doctor or midwife. If you live in Europe, pharmacists sell special TENS units for use in childbirth. Some doulas are also trained in the use of a TENS unit and can help you in conjunction with your practitioner's approval. Some women even purchase their own units to use during birth. Though the electrodes will need to be replaced after several uses. (Though not during the course of the average labor.)

Are There Specific TENS Units for Labor and Delivery?

There are TENS units made specifically for birth, but many are used by physical therapists for other types of pain relief. They have adjustable intensity. You can usually also select between bursts of electricity and continuous stimulation. This means that you can control the type of stimulation that feels best for you. Many women find that they start with a lower intensity but that it goes up as labor progresses.

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  • Pain relief in labor by transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). van der Spank JT, Cambier DC, De Paepe HM, Danneels LA, Witvrouw EE, Beerens L. Arch Gynecol Obstet. 2000 Nov;264(3):131-6.