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If TENS machines are really a drug-free way to relieve pain in as little as 20 minutes, we have one main question: how do they do it? People who hear about TENS for the first time have to ask "how do TENS machines work?" Find out how a TENS machine is capable of relieving muscle pain, easing muscle tension, and increasing circulation in such a quick, easy, drug-free way.

How Do TENS Machines Work?

TENS therapy uses electrical impulses to control the way the brain processes pain signals. It allows the patient to control these impulses by restoring normal impulses from the body to the spine, through the production of natural “feel good” chemicals. TENS blocks pain signals that originate from the spine.

What Does TENS Stand For?

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. The name alone can help to explain the process around how TENS machines work. Each word reflects a step in the process to blocking the body's pain signals.  


This is defined as the application or penetration through the depth of the skin. It refers to the impulses that are initially sent through the skin during TENS therapy. 


The impulses are small electrical charges generated through electrodes that travel into the body.


The impulses are sent to and from the brain through the nerves, which also send pain signals. Two signals can not travel along the nerves at the same time.


The impulses work by stimulating nerves in the right way. The stimulation blocks pain signals from delivering their message to the brain.

The Cell Phone Analogy

TENS machines override pain receptors in the brain. A comparable way to look at this concept is by looking at phone signals. When a cell phone dials a number, it sends an air-wave path to the number dialed. The reception is either strong, weak, or not working at all. We know that with no signal, our call doesn’t go through. The same goes for pain signals.

When pain strikes, a signal travels into the spinal cord. From here the signal travels through the brain stem (medulla), and into the brain’s relay center (thalamus), where an appropriate motor reaction is determined. These reactions could be getting away from that painful stimuli or a natural autonomic nervous system response, like rapid breathing and sweaty palms. What if we made sure that signal never got through? Electrical stimulation can block the signal so your painful call is never received.

Do TENS Units Really Work?

Although TENS units have been used in doctors' offices for many years and available for at-home use, people still question, "do TENS units really work?" There has been sufficient scientific evidence proving that TENS therapy is a fast, effective, and drug-free form of pain relief. Clinical trials have shown that TENS units can "significantly decrease pain" after a series of randomized controlled trials conducted over a 30-year period.

Get More Information

Read the article TENS Machine: This is Everything You Need to Know for additional information on how TENS units work, which conditions it can be used for, how to choose a TENS unit, and if it is the right type of treatment for you!

How Do TENS Machines Work?


  1. DR-HO'S. "Do TENS Units Really Work?" Living Pain Free. May 2017. https://drhonow.com/drhonowblog/2017/05/15/do-tens-units-really-work/
  2. Johnson, M; Martinson, M. “Efficacy of electrical nerve stimulation for chronic musculoskeletal pain: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Pain 130 (1-2), July 2007, 157-65. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17383095
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