TENS Machine – can it help relieve labour pains?
What is a TENS machine, how does it work – and can it stop your pain during labour? Everything you need to know – plus real mums describe how the electric currents feel
You have several drug-free pain relief options in labour – one of which is the use of a TENS Machine.
In this piece, we’ll answer some pretty common questions about TENS, including:
- How does a TENS Machine work?
- Who can you use a TENS machine?
- Where can you hire a TENS machine?
- The pros and cons of using TENS
- Do mums reckon it actually gets rid of the pain?
By clicking on the above links, you can jump ahead to read about your chosen question.
Though if you’re currently pregnant and exploring all of your potential pain relief options, we’d suggest giving the whole thing a read from start to finish, so you’re fully armed with all the info you need going in to your birth ✊
What is a TENS machine?
In a nutshell: TENS machines use mild electrical currents, delivered via pads on your back, to stimulate your nerves and hopefully ease any pain you experience while giving birth.
For some context, 'TENS' actually stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation.
TENS machines aren’t just for labour, either. Sometimes they’re also used for chronic pain conditions.
Basically, a small battery-operated stimulator transmits gentle, electrical impulses through your skin, via 4 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.
Honestly, it sounds pretty weird, but these machines aren’t uncommon at all. Now, for the science bit…
What evidence is there that TENS machines work?
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.
However, the NHS says there’s not a lot of scientific evidence out there proving the usefulness of these machines in really resolving pain.
“There isn't enough good-quality scientific evidence to say for sure whether TENS is a reliable method of pain relief,” says the NHS website.
“More research is needed and clinical trials for TENS are ongoing.
“TENS isn't a cure for pain and often only provides short-term relief while the TENS machine is being used.
“However, the treatment is generally very safe and you may feel it's worth trying instead of, or in addition to, the usual medical treatments.”
Indeed, healthcare professionals DO say it does help some people temporarily, and from the small amount of research that has been done, it’s thought that TENS can be especially effective during early labour.
TENS machines are suitable for most people, but they’re not recommended for use in early pregnancy.
So, before you try one out, it’s important to clear it with your GP or midwife, just to be 100% sure about any possible risk factors.
We already know that women with epilepsy, heart problems, heart pacemakers or any other kind of metal/electric device/implant inside them can NOT use TENS machines at all.
It’s also not going to be suitable for you if you hope to give birth in a bathtub or birthing pool.
However, you can either use TENS in hospital or at home. If you’re at home, it’s likely you’ll have to hire or even purchase your own machine, which can cost anything from £10 - £200.
Again, chat through all this with your midwife before making any splashy purchases.
If your midwife isn’t sorting one out for you in hospital, you can either buy or hire your own TENS machine.
You can also hire an MFM Award-winning TENS machine from Babycare for around £30.
However, there are also a range of TENS Machines on the market, varying in price from around a tenner to £200, available from Argos, Boots, Babycare TENS, Mothercare, Lloyds Pharmacy - as well as sites like Amazon.
Mind, lots of our MFM forum mums said they found the cost of hiring was similar – if not the same as – buying their own, so they thought it better to buy!
“I bought one as I found one second hand that was a similar price to hiring!” says McSquirtle. "Figured I'd use it for subsequent babies if I liked it, and if not then I could sell on."
When should you start using a TENS machine?
Midwife Anne Richley says it’s best to hire or buy your TENS machine around the 37th week of pregnancy.
“Play about with it, work out where to put the pads and how to operate the controls,” adds Anne. “It’s important that you’re familiar with it before labour.”
As mentioned earlier, it’s thought to be most effective in the earlier stages of labour, and is often combined with some other form of pain relief.
As with all forms of labour pain relief, there are peaks and troughs, highs and lows, advantages and disadvantages.
Here are a few you might want to consider before making any decisions…
What are the advantages of TENS?
- You can play about with it in labour (best to get one around week 37), and work out where to put the pads and how to operate the controls, so you’re confident what you will get out of it in labour
- There’s a hand-held control box that puts you in control of the intensity of the impulses throughout labour
- It doesn’t affect your baby in any way
- 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.
What are the disadvantages of TENS?
- Not all NHS facilities have TENS machines, so you might have to hire a machine and if you want it in plenty of time you’ll be paying for it while you’re not using it
- Having to control it can act as a distraction – you’re less able to focus inwardly, as you need to if you’re also practising hypnotherapy, for example
- You can’t use a bath or birthing pool as well.
MFM mums share their stories It seems it’s a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to the experience of using a TENS machine.
Though lots of our mums found it definitely reduced the pain they were experiencing – even if it didn’t eradicate it completely.
That’s true of midwife Anne’s experience, too: “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.”
"I was convinced the TENS machine wasn’t working because labour still felt very painful,” says mum Michelle.
“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."
Laura, mum to 9-month-old Gabriel, also told us: "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."
MFMer Feelingsad said of her experience: “I used one with G and it was great. You need to use it early though – don’t wait till you "need" pain relief.
“You put it on when you start getting contractions. For me it was a godsend and helped me stay at home to 5cm and even then I didn’t need any more pain relief for some time x”
“My friend is lending me one and said the same thing to me about using it early,” says ferbs. “She said that setting it up was also a good distraction during those early contractions.”
“It was fab!” shared Mcsquirtle. “Stayed at home until fully dilated.
“I used it pretty much all the way through labour until I fancied a bath. It doesn't take the pain away but made it manageable for me and also acted as a great distraction.”
Images: Getty Images