Many have questions about a common treatment for lower back pain – electrical stimulation. “Is it safe?,” people wonder. How does it work? And perhaps most important, is it effective?
The most common way of applying electrical stimulation to the back for pain relief is via a TENS unit. TENS stands for Transcutaneous (which means “through the skin”) Electrical Neural Stimulation. As its name suggests, one attaches electrodes from the device to the skin surrounding the painful area.
TENS advocates propose two theories as to how TENS works. The first of these theories is that the electrical impulses are delivered through the nerves, and that the nerves are only made to handle one impulse at a time; so the confounded nerve transmits the new signal instead of the preexisting pain signal.
The second theory proposes that when the electrical currents are sent through the skin, the body releases endorphins, the body’s natural opiates, thus producing a natural painkilling effect. It is not known which, if either, of these two theories are accurate.
TENS has been around for a long time as a method of pain suppression – approximately thirty years. Doctors regularly prescribe it and patients swear by it, some owning their own battery-powered TEMS devices. It may surprise you to learn that there is, as of yet, no definite scientific data indisputably supporting its use for pain management.
In general, the studies on TEMS’ painkilling effects have been inconclusive. However, as far as lower back pain goes, although TEMS is not considered harmful, according to current scientific data, neither does it appear to produce any real benefit.
Studies have examined the long-term efficiency of treatment, looking for such results as increase in muscle strength or decrease in disability and doctor bills, but have not found evidence of such. Comparisons have been made between TENS treatment and placebo, and TENS treatment with and without opioid use, but neither study found any discernible difference.
On the other hand, current pain management theory suggests that stress, emotion, and attention all play an important part in how a person perceives pain. Scientific research supports this concept.
In fact, it is commonly suggested that chronic pain patients practice meditation techniques and other methods of calming themselves and distracting themselves from their pain, so as not to increase their by paying it more attention than absolutely necessary. When regarding matters in this light, it seems that TENS could be a very effective distracter for the chronic pain patient – and this includes the chronic pain patient experiencing lower back pain.
So while TENS may not make a difference as far as disability and actual physical improvement of one’s condition are concerned, it seems quite possible that for short-term pain, it is every bit as effective as its proponents suggest.
In the end, it becomes the decision of the individual as to whether or not TEMS is a good choice for you and your lower back pain. As always, consult with your doctor before undertaking any new regimen.