How does a TENS unit help fibromyalgia?How does a TENS unit help fibromyalgia?

Someone told me to get a TENS unit. Do they really work? Why does the cost of these vary so much?

Answers from our Doctors

Brian.T.Walitt's picture
Dr. Brian Walitt says:

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is a therapeutic modality that produces electrical stimulations to the skin and underlying tissues with the intent of causing pain relief. It consists of a generator machine with a number of ‘electrodes’ that you attach to the skin over a painful area. The theory behind it is that electrical stimulations interfere with peripheral nerve and muscle function leading to relief.

TENS is thought to be most effective over local areas. It has been most studied in local musculoskeletal pain problems, such as chronic back pain. The studies with TENS in local pain problems are not consistent, with some studies showing benefit and other not. Fibromyalgia is typically thought as a disorder of generalized pain throughout the body, making TENS an unattractive option for many fibromyalgia patients. It is not practical to perform ‘whole body’ stimulation with TENS. The most recent study of TENS in fibromyalgia observed a decrease of pain (on a scale of 0-100) of 77.5 to 62.5 (Lofgren 2009). The effects seem to be modest when it does work and it is clearly not effective for all people that try it.

Clinically, TENS has been widely used for patients with chronic pain and is very safe. It is non-invasive and can be performed at home. It is best used to treat specific pain areas. It should be avoided by people with pacemakers, epilepsy, chronic numbness, and should not be used near eye or over a certain part of the neck (carotid sinus). People who seem to successfully use the therapy typically undergo training with the machine by a trained therapist and regular follow-up with such therapists. Machines are of highly variable quality and complexity, which is often reflected in cost. It would be best to contact a physiatrist or rehabilitation specialist to discuss TENS and help with choosing the right TENS machine.

Answered on: Thursday, April 8, 2010 - 12:20


Commenting: Guest
05/05/2011 - 00:00

I was given a trial of a TENS yesterday, thought it might be a good non invasive option for my fibromyalgia pain. Although my pain seemed to improve for a short while after having 2 pads placed on a painful shoulder, about 1 hour later my pain began to get much worse and continued to worsen over the 24 hours since using the TENS. While the TENS was turned on to me it felt like the 'pulses' were too strong causing my muscles to spasm and twitch. Could that be the reason for my (very much) increased pain today? Would really appreciate your opinion on this.

Commenting: Guest
08/17/2011 - 05:43

Thanks doctor for the answer about the tens. It is relly help us to understand more about that.

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Commenting: Guest
02/18/2011 - 15:05

I have been using the tens unit for awhile now and it does seem to help.At least I can function now for a few hours,where before I could not function that much. My Tens unit is an EMPI unit. It is expensive but I feel it is worth it if you can at least get out and visit family and friends.

Commenting: Guest
06/09/2012 - 21:02

Do insurance companies pay for tens units. I have fibromyalgia and have tried everything. Meds are expensive and don't work, pt didn't help, inferred light therapy helped sometimes. What will help me my pain is mostly in my legs.

Commenting: Guest
09/05/2012 - 19:33

I received a Tens unit for low back pain, and I decided to use it on my upper back where my fibromyalgia gives me the most pain. I am very surprised that it actually has been very helpful in decreasing my pain signals. It does not get me totally pain free, but my pain is more bearable. So far it is safer then any by mouth medication I have taken, due to the severe side effects I have had from antidepressant, and anticonvulsant they are giving at the pain clinics. I just wanted to share this info. I have an EMPI portable unit. I actually slept with it on at a low frequency, and was pain free most all day. I took some Tylenol and it is marvelous to have been able to say " I am not hurting"

Commenting: Guest
12/14/2012 - 06:11

I have a very complicated case, and so therefore don't assume that everyone is going to have the same help with the tens unit: I have cerebral palsy, fibromyalgia and disc problems at c-5,6 suggesting a herniated disc or stenosis. In any case, I suffer from severe neck pain, from constant chronic headaches, migraines, and nausea. In the Fibromyalgia, pain in 15 out of 18 points, most prevalent in my back. I also have a tonsure slippage in my spine on my left side of my neck (spina Bifida sack, not exposed, with possible chiari malformation).

Using the tens unit (EMPI 4 pad stim unit), allowed me to sleep 4-5 hours a night, which is more than I usually can do unless on major medication. I have tried all the usual meds for fibro and found them either ineffective or worse, causing more emotional problems than I normally have. Like the other guest says, it does not get you pain free (because the area that you place the tens on is the only area that gets effected), but certainly reduces down the pain to a dull roar which is easier dealt with then constant chronic high levels of pain. I still have to take tylenol and use hot/cold compresses, but it's better than being on 25-30 medications a day. As well as mention that with spastic cp, I can use it in low frequency without spastic problems, better than baclofen or Flexeril.

Commenting: Guest
01/08/2013 - 11:19

I have been looking at purchasing a TENS unit for use with my fibro pain. I mentioned this to my chiropractor and she wanted me to try it in her office before making the purchase. I left her office after the TENS treatment and was amazed. My pain was so much better and I just felt energized. I will be purchasing one immediately. I do know that people with fibro have completely different reactions to the many treatments out there. For me, ice works well, but many can not use ice. The new fibro drugs don't do anything for me so I am excited that the TENS therapy seems to help for now.

Commenting: Guest
03/05/2013 - 20:16

medicare is my primary insurance carrier I also have a secondary policy with a private company.I called my secondary carrier and was instructed to get a perscription for a tens unit andto order it from a particular company.A few days later my tens unit arrived and it was covered in full with no out of pocket cost.Hope this post will help someone...

Commenting: Guest
03/29/2013 - 21:23

I have a Biostim M7 Tens Unit and I love it. I have Less pain and can function better. I did buy it online though and spent much less than I would have at a local medical store. I am glad I tried it.

Commenting: Guest
04/01/2013 - 04:14

I just got a unit through my doctor and have found it to give some relief! I am so grateful to not awaken throughout the night when changing sleeping positions because of the pain! There is still some pain in other areas because it would be hard to treat the 12 major areas with the unit all the time, but it is bearable now.

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