A TENS Unit for Fibromyalgia Pain

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I'm really loving my new TENS unit!

Even though my fibromyalgia is technically in remission, I do still have a lot of muscle pain and tension that just won't go away. I recently had my doctor prescribe a TENS unit, and while I expected it to help, I didn't expect it to help so much or so fast.

What is TENS?

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A TENS unit is a pocket-sized device with a couple of cables that attach to electrodes.

You stick the electrodes on where you've got pain, and the device sends a little electricity through the area. It relieves pain by essentially distracting the nerves with a new sensation, thus stopping them from sending pain signals. It also triggers the release of endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers.

A consequence of these changes is that the muscles can relax. Pain leads to tension, which leads to more pain, which leads to more tension, etc. Breaking that cycle can give your muscles the relief they need.

My Experience

I've had electrical stimulation at physical therapy before, so I know it works well for me. (Of course, not everyone has the same experience.) I wanted the TENS because my worst symptom for the past couple of years has been myofascial pain and tension. All the massage, stretching, NSAIDs, hot baths and supplements I can throw at them help manage it somewhat, but they just don't do enough.

I got my TENS unit last week. I've used it 4 out of the 6 nights since, on multiple areas -- neck, back, hips, shoulders, arms and legs.

The result is that my muscles are much less tense. Hard, angry knots that have been there for years are starting to loosen up. My pain level has plummeted and my functionality has improved.

I can stand up straight when I get out of bed in the morning. I'm sleeping better because my hips and a nasty trigger point on my thigh are no longer screaming at me all night.

So far, I've been able to cut down on painkillers and muscle relaxers, which I'm sure has made my liver happy.

I've only discovered one problem. The reusable electrodes it comes with need to go on a fairly flat area or they deliver the electricity to too small an area, which can be painful and make your muscles jump. That makes it hard to use them on your neck, which is one of my worst areas. My unit came with a big bag of single-use electrodes that are flexible, but - of course - I'm allergic to the adhesive and it left itchy, burning welts on my skin. So I'm experimenting to see what will work for my neck.

TENS for Fibromyalgia

We do have some evidence that TENS is effective for fibromyalgia pain. It doesn't work for everyone, but it does help some of us. TENS is generally considered a very safe treatment, as it won't interact with meds or make you loopy.

I'm sure some of us can't tolerate it, though. In fact, a small percentage of the healthy population can't handle TENS, and I'd imagine that percentage is probably double in us. Still, at the outside, we're only talking about 15-20%.

Some research suggests that TENS may even have a calming effect on the central nervous system (CNS). A central feature of fibromyalgia is believed to be a hyper-sensitized CNS, so anything that will calm it down is likely to be a benefit.

Getting a TENS Unit

If your doctor prescribes TENS for you, you'll typically be sent to a physical therapist to learn how to use it. When you're there, you should be able to test it out. It doesn't take long to determine whether you like the feeling or not - the first few tingles will probably let you know.

TENS units typically cost a few hundred dollars, but some insurance plans cover them if they're prescribed by a doctor. It's also pretty easy to pick up an inexpensive used one on eBay or Craigslist, without having to worry about your doctor or insurance at all.

However, if you go this route, you should make sure your doctor knows you're using it, and it would be a good idea to get a consultation with someone like a physical therapist who can teach you how to use it properly. We need our treatments to do their job well and not cause further problems. Using a TENS unit incorrectly could really aggravate your muscles.

If you have reduced sensation, are pregnant, or have cancer or a pacemaker, TENS isn't considered safe for you.

Always remember that what works for some of us doesn't work for all of us. It's best to approach each treatment with cautious optimism, and if something like TENS doesn't seem to be right for you, don't stick with it just because it worked for me or someone else.

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