Using Your TENS Machine at Home? Six Things You Need to Know

Do you use a TENS machine to use at home?  Owning a home TENS machine is more and more common, given the power of TENS to relieve pain.  Having a TENS machine means you have one more drug-free pain relief technique to use between physiotherapy treatment sessions. 

Our physiotherapists at River East Physiotherapy have extensive experience identifying which patients could benefit from TENS, what settings would be helpful, and what to do if something goes wrong.  We often include TENS in patients' treatment plans. 

Based on our experience as physiotherapists, here are five things you should know when using TENS at home.  For more detail, see our Guide to TENS here

1) Make sure TENS is safe for YOU 

TENS is a low-risk treatment for most people.  But some people and some conditions should not use TENS or any other type of electrotherapy on their skin.   

For example, don’t apply TENS over a deep vein thrombosis or in an area with malignant cancer.  And someone who is pregnant shouldn’t apply TENS to their low back.  For a full list of contraindications, see our detailed Guide to TENS here

2) Remember your goal for TENS: Temporary Pain Relief 

Recall: the most common use of TENS machines is for pain relief.  This is called "sensory" TENS.  Sensory TENS treatment creates a buzzing, tingling sensation on the skin in the painful area.  The goal of this treatment is to distract your brain from feeling the pain.  Then hopefully, once you turn off your TENS and complete the treatment, that pain relief will last a bit longer.  

You’re more likely to benefit from your home TENS machine if you set your expectations right: TENS provides temporary pain relief.  It is unlikely to get you to your goals for physiotherapy on its own. It should be part of a broader treatment plan designed for you by your physiotherapist.   

3) Settings: Keep it simple   

There are lots of different TENS machines out there, some simple, some complex.  If you have a complex one, don’t get overwhelmed with all the options for settings.   

For pain relief, try these settings: 

Pulse duration: Between 50 to 80 microseconds
Frequency: 80 to 120 Hz
Intensity: Increase the intensity slowly until you feel a buzzy, tingling sensation. It should feel strong but still comfortable. 
Time: 15 minutes

That said, your physiotherapist can prescribe custom settings for you once they understand your condition and your medical history, and after assessing your response to TENS and pain.  So don’t hesitate to ask your physiotherapist at River East Physiotherapy for your custom TENS settings. 

4) Cleaning the TENS pads and your skin 

We recommend keeping your skin and the TENS pads very clean.  This reduces your chance of skin infection, and it also protects others in your household if you are sharing the TENS unit.   

Swab your skin with rubbing alcohol every time before applying the TENS pads. 

Once you’ve used the TENS pads, clean them with soap and water (unless your machine manufacturer recommends something else!).  If you have TENS pads that use gel, make sure to rinse off the gel before washing the pads.  If you have adhesive TENS pads, these will usually be either disposable or washable with soap or water. 

Leave the TENS pads to air dry in a room-temperature environment. 

5) Should muscles twitch when using your TENS machine?

It's okay if your muscles twitch when you're using your TENS machine, but they don't have to.  What's most important is that the sensation is comfortable - whether you're feeling buzzing, tingling, twitching or all three.

If the twitching is uncomfortable, reduce the intensity of your settings until it feels better.

There are some conditions where physiotherapists intentionally use electrotherapy to make a muscle contract.  But if you're using TENS at home for pain relief, you can usually get results without muscle twitching or contracting.

6) Prevent skin burns by ensuring full contact with TENS pads 

The most common injury from using TENS machines at home is skin burns.  Burns usually look like reddened skin that does not lose its redness after the TENS pads are removed.   

Burns can happen when the TENS pads are not in full contact with the skin – meaning parts of the pads aren’t fully touching.  The electrical current becomes concentrated in the touching parts, and that becomes too much for the skin to handle. 

So always ensure the TENS pads are in full contact with your skin.  If you are using gel, make sure the gel covers the entire pad with no gaps.  It’s better to have too much gel than not enough! 

If you do get a burn from your home TENS unit and you’re concerned about it, we recommend you speak to your doctor. 

Still have questions about your home TENS machine?  Our physiotherapists can help.  Call us to book an appointment with a physiotherapist, or book a FREE 15-minute phone consultation to confirm that physiotherapy is right for you.