TENS: a safe, drug-free alternative to help pain during labour
As well as pain medication, there are alternative or additional pain relief options for women to use during labour. These include gentle movement, massage, warm shower or baths and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS).
TENS has been used in the management of chronic and acute pain for many years. For over 20 years TENS has also been used by women during labour to help with reducing the intensity of pain during contractions.
TENS is hand-held, battery powered unit which sends electrical impulses into the tissues via electrodes. During labour, these electrodes (which are covered in a sticky gel) stick directly onto the back and sacral area.
Research has shown that TENS can delay the need for medication or pharmacological pain relief. TENS does not have any side effects and can be used in combination with other forms of pain relief.
TENS is a good option to try in labour as it is easy and safe to use and can be used at any time over the course of your labour. Ideally, TENS should be applied as early as possible in early stages of labour.
Obstetric TENS has been specifically designed for use during labour. It has a boost button which can be pressed during a contraction increase the intensity level quickly so maximum pain relief can be achieved. It can then be easily switched off once the contraction has passed.
How does it work?
TENS is thought to work in different ways
- by activating the pain gate theory, blocking the painful input by sending a different/non-painful input to the brain
- by stimulating the body’s natural pain-relieving system and releasing endorphins
- helping you feel in control of your labour and being less anxious
- offering a distraction from your contractions and by increasing local blood and lymphatic circulation.
Who should not use it?
Anyone who has a pacemaker, cardiac condition, or seizures is NOT advised to use a TENS machine. Always consult with your midwife or obstetrician if you are unsure.
If you are planning on using TENS during labour, it is important that you are confident with how to use this in advance. You can schedule a physiotherapy appointment so we can demonstrate how to use the machine correctly. You can also purchase a machine to use from your physiotherapist.