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Dealing with pain, be that chronic or acute, can be extremely difficult and can have a great impact on the patient's quality of life. More and more people, however, are trying to move away from using prescription painkillers to manage their pain. Many patients turn to chiropractic care to reduce their pain.

Chiropractic care takes a holistic approach to managing pain. Alongside spinal manipulations, chiropractors utilize a variety of methods to help their patients heal. This can include anything from exercise and nutrition advice, to massage and stretching, and all the way to the use of modern technology. One of the most promising technologies used by chiropractors is the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit.


What is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation?

TENS units are small battery-powered machines that have leads coming out of them with electrodes on the end. These electrodes are placed on the skin (transcutaneous) and the TENS unit delivers small electrical impulses through the electrodes directly to the skin. The electrical impulses are not painful and they are felt as a tingling sensation. The pulse rate can be adjusted depending on the patient and what they are hoping to achieve.


How does TENS work?

TENS units work to relieve pain in two main ways.

1) Disrupting pain signals

The gate theory of pain suggests that the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) uses a gate mechanism to allow pain impulses to reach the brain. When the gate is open, pain signals travel along the spinal cord to the brain, and pain is felt. When the gate is closed, the pain signals cannot reach the spinal cord so no pain is felt.

The electrical impulses released by the TENS unit interfere with the pain signals being released from the affected area, preventing them from traveling along the spinal cord and reaching the brain. In other words, the electrical impulses effectively close the gate and block pain signals from reaching the brain.

2) Boosting natural painkillers

The tiny electrical impulses are not felt as pain, but they are registered by the body. In response to the tiny amount of damage it can sense, the body will release endorphins, which are a natural painkiller. These endorphins will also reach the area where there is pain and can reduce it.

TENS units can also reduce inflammation and relax the muscles, both of which will contribute to pain reduction. It is worth noting that TENS units only reduce pain while they are being used, so it is best to use other treatments to reduce pain in the longer-term alongside them.

Chiropractic care and TENS

Many chiropractors now offer TENS therapy as part of their treatment plans. TENS units can be used during a session, particularly directly before manipulation to encourage muscle relaxation and improve the effectiveness of the manipulation. Chiropractors can also advise patients on how to use the TENS unit themselves, working with them to find the right positions for the electrodes, and the best setting for the pulse rate. The patient can then use the TENS unit at home to help reduce their pain between chiropractic sessions.

TENS units are one of the many arrows in the chiropractic quiver to help reduce pain and improve patients' lives. It is a useful addition to boosting the effectiveness of manipulations with patients who are dealing with acute and chronic pain, and it can also help patients to reduce their pain themselves between chiropractic visits.

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