The Magic of a TENS Unit
Updated: Feb 2
When you're in labor, there are about a million different ways to help you manage pain. Everything from counter pressure all the way to that ever-popular epidural! The moment you start experiencing pain you don't think you can handle, you don't necessarily need to jump immediately to the epi (though if that's the thing you want out of the gate, I'ma help you get that).
My doula bag comes loaded with a ton of options for you and a TENS Unit is one of them!
What is a TENS Unit?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. The unit itself is a non-drug, non-invasive way to help manage pain during labor. It consists of a handheld control device, several electrodes, and pads to attach the electrodes to your body. Once you turn the unit on, small electrical pulses will be sent through your skin to your spine and brain. You'll typically feel buzzing or tingling at the spots the pads are placed. According to ICEA (International Childbirth Education Association), "by using a TENS unit during labor the Gate control theory of pain asserts that a non-painful input signal (the TENS unit) closes the gates to the painful input from the labor contractions."
When should you use TENS?
Early labor is often the best time to use a TENS unit as it can allow your body to naturally release the all-important endorphins that you're gonna want flowing through your body when the final stages of labor start (and can be incredibly intense). However, TENS can be used at any point during your labor except when using hydrotherapy. So if you're in the tub or shower, ya gotta take it off (but baths and showers another very effective way to manage pain). It also doesn't have any residual effects which, for some people, can be really important.
TENS also doesn't interfere with any external monitoring, analgesics (painkiller meds), or nitrous oxide ("laughing gas") so you're able to stay mobile through contractions. And staying in motion is really important to keep labor progressing and help baby move further and further down into the birth canal, setting baby up to be in an ideal position for delivery.
What's the history of TENS?
TENS units have been used for labor pain, menstrual pain, and even post-surgery and trauma pain since the 1970s. But electrical pain management dates back even further! According to Evidence Based Birth, "the history of using TENS for pain relief may date as far back as the year A.D. 63, when the physician to the Roman emperor reported that he could relieve pain by standing on electrical fish at the seaside." But, like, don't go looking for eels to stand on...the TENS unit is far safer!
So that's a brief overview of a TENS unit! I keep one charged and in my doula bag for you to use whenever you want.
Carry on, y'all. Carry on!
Micah is a birth doula.& photographer and a prenatal yoga instructor based in Fort Worth, TX.