Not sure what a TENS machine is? Midwife Anne Richley explores this pain relief option and whether it may work for you
The 'TENS' in TENS machine stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. I’ve looked after lots of women who’ve used TENS machines in labour, and some haven’t needed any other pain relief. Then again, others have thrown it aside and asked for something stronger. But it’s certainly worth a try.
A small battery-operated stimulator transmits gentle, electrical impulses through your skin, via four self-adhesive pads positioned on your back. These gentle impulses stimulate your body to release its own natural painkiller, endorphins, and by stimulating the nerves, pain signals are blocked before they reach the brain (often referred to as the ‘gate theory’).
The intensity of the impulses can be altered as labour progresses. Electrodes are attached to the pads, and there’s a hand-held control box, which is usually small and unobtrusive.
As a form of pain relief, the concept has been around a long time – it was first recorded by a Roman physician about 2,000 years ago. Research shows that TENS machines are most effective when they’re introduced in early labour.
A distinct advantage of using a TENS machine is it means you're able to stay mobile during labour. This helps your baby’s head to move lower, and encourages contractions, which therefore postpones or avoids the use of epidurals.
If you hire a TENS machine, it’s best to get it around the 37th week of pregnancy. Play about with it, work out where to put the pads and how to operate the controls. It’s important that you’re familiar with it before labour.
A TENS machine offers the chance of drug-free pain relief, allowing you to stay alert and keep mobile. It’s completely natural, doesn’t affect your baby in any way and is easy to self-administer. It can be
used with other forms of pain relief, and is especially useful for post-caesarean pain relief.
Not all NHS facilities have TENS machines, so you might have to hire one yourself. Also, you can’t use it if you have a bath or use a birthing pool. Plus, it isn’t suitable for women with epilepsy or heart pacemakers.
"I was convinced the TENS machine wasn’t working because labour still felt very painful. However, it was only when I took it off that I realised it had been effective, as I could feel the difference. It got me through the first few hours until I got in the pool, where my baby was born."
Michelle, mum to Sam, 6 weeks
"I started using the TENS machine as soon as the backache started. When the contractions
got stronger, I turned up the intensity. It’s hard to describe the feeling,
almost like pins and needles
in my back, but it certainly worked, as I didn’t use any other pain relief."
Laura, mum to Gabriel, 9 months
Check out other pain relief options available for you labour...
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