Can a TENS Unit Help Endo Pain?
Last updated: April 2023
It was about a decade ago that I first became acquainted with TENS units and began using them for different pain issues, such as when I had tendonitis in my wrists or herniated discs in my neck and lower back. I found that they offered some relief from the pain and so more recently began using them to try to quell endo-associated pelvic pain during and around my period.
What is a TENS unit?
TENS stands for "transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation". It is a battery-operated device that delivers small electrical impulses through electrodes that have adhesive pads to attach them to a person's skin over the area causing pain or discomfort. When I attended physical therapy regularly, I had a TENS unit the PT used on me for some of the session. Eventually, I got approved through insurance to bring one home and keep it. It was kind of a clunky, heavy device I would clip onto my jeans and the adhesive electrodes lost their stickiness quickly, so I was constantly replacing them. This is why I never used it as much as I could have.
TENS and acupuncture
My other familiarity with TENS was when I was at my acupuncturist's office. She would clip a TENS unit to the needles she had stuck me with. Sometimes this included needles in my arms, wrists or neck. However, she also would needle my abdomen due to the pain there from endo and IBS and clip those to the TENS unit as well. I always found my pain was significantly reduced after those sessions and sometimes, if I was close to my period, my pain would be less intense than usual during it.
TENS for pelvic pain
It was due to this experience that I had the idea recently to try TENS on my own at home on my abdomen. Nowadays, you can usually by a TENS over the counter as many convenience or drug stores. The kind I currently have is portable and very thin and doesn't contain any wires or heavy devices. To clarify, instead of having a huge clunky machine and adhesive coming from it, my current TENS is a larger, one-size-fits-all adhesive framed for specific parts of the body, with a tiny little device clipped into it that powers it to give off the electrical impulses. I have one for my lower back and it's shaped precisely to cover most of that area. However, one night when I was in a lot of abdominal pain and the usual tactics (such as heat and medication) weren't working, I decided to take my TENS unit I usually use for my lower back and place it on my low belly. I had just completed my period, but for some reason I was still experiencing a lot of cramping. And it helped! The pain was finally reduced to the point where I could fall back asleep (or to be more clear, TENS usually works by interrupting or distracting the body and mind from pain signals, which is probably how it helped me in this case).
What does the research say?
I decided to dig deeper into my research to see if there have been any studies to account for the effectiveness of TENS units in treating endo-associated pain. I found one study published in 2015 that analyzed the experiences of 22 women with deep endometriosis undergoing hormone therapy but who still had persistent pelvic pain or deep dyspareunia and who were using different kinds of TENS devices/methods (including acupuncture-based TENS) on a regular basis for an 8-week period. The study found that the women experienced "significant improvement for chronic pelvic pain, deep dyspareunia, and quality of life by the use of TENS".1
There are even some TENS units now out there that are solely intended for women with menstrual pain, though I can't vouch for them personally. I am quite happy with my unit. Have you ever tried a TENS unit to help reduce endo-associated pelvic pain? Did it help? Please feel free to share your experience in the comments section below.
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