TENS: what is it and why do I need one for Labor?

What is a TENS machine?

A TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) machine is a small battery-operated device that uses electrical currents to stimulate nerves and reduce pain. They are often used in physical therapy for back pain or injuries.

What makes a maternity TENS machine special?

The ones made for labor have larger pads than the normal ones and often include a ‘boost’ button that you can push when you feel the contraction coming and will change the electrical stimulus from intermittent to constant. When the contraction is over you push it again and it goes back to pulsing.

Close up image of hands holding a TENS machine.

How does it work?

In labor, a TENS can be used to reduce the pain of contractions. This works in two ways:

  1. The electrical impulses release endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers.
  2. The Gate Control Theory: this is the idea that there are limited number of signals that can travel up the spinal cord to the brain at once. There are things we can do to open or close the ‘gate’ that controls which of these impulses travel up to the brain. For example, if you hit your leg on a coffee table, you automatically rub the spot with your hand, right? This pressure doesn’t erase the pain, but it travels up the spinal cord first and is the primary input that your brain receives, thus easing the pain.

What are the advantages of using a TENS machine during labor?

  • It’s Safe. Unless you have a pacemaker, the TENS is safe to use. You can even keep it on while they monitor your baby’s heart with a CTG (cardiotocography) monitor, it won’t affect the results. It’s obviously not safe to use in the water, but if you do decide to try the tub or shower during labor you can simply take the TENS off and put it back on its backing. If you want to use it again later, you can just dry off your skin and stick the pads back on.
  • Non-Invasive: TENS therapy is a non-invasive and drug-free pain relief method. It is an alternative to painkillers and other medication that can have negative side effects.
  • Portable: TENS machines are small and portable, allowing you to use them anywhere you go. You can wear the pads under your clothing and the machine itself has a lanyard for around your neck or a clip to attach it to your pants. You can wear it on your way to the hospital or birth house.
  • Easy to Use: TENS machines are easy to use and come with simple instructions. You can adjust the settings to find the most comfortable and effective level of stimulation, increasing the strength as contractions get stronger.

In labor, the TENS has been found to be most effective when you apply it early in labor. You don’t have to put it on at the very first twinge of a contraction, but once the contractions are regular and you’re having to breathe through them it’s a good time to start. 

Try it out for yourself

If you’re interested in trying out a TENS for your labor but don’t want to purchase one, I offer a one month rental for 55 CHF and can ship to addresses in Switzerland.

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About the Author

Christine Bliven is a certified doula, childbirth educator, and babywearing consultant who is passionate about helping new families get a good start by providing resources, tools, and practical tips. She lives in Zürich, Switzerland with her husband and three kids.

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