Using a TENS machine for labour pains: everything you need to know

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Are you considering using a TENS machine during labour? Here’s everything you need to know before making your decision…

What is a TENS Machine?
TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. It’s a small, battery-operated device with 2 leads connected to sticky pads that you can control with a hand-held device. It’s a non-medicine alternative for pain relief during labour.

How does a TENS machine work?
A TENS machine provides mild, safe and painless electrical impulses. It’s thought that the electrical impulses stimulate your production of endorphins, which are a natural pain relief  released from your brain. So eventually, the pain sensation being stimulated by your womb is dampened down by the circulating endorphins in your body.

Some women say they feel more in control when they use a TENS machine because they can control the amount of stimulation during each contraction. Additionally, some say they feel less anxious as it helps provide a welcome distraction.

Is it effective/does it work?
Over the years, I’ve cared for many women using a TENS machine who have found it to be very beneficial. Like many forms and methods of pain relief available for use in labour, I feel your timing is vital. There’s some research that supports this too. The TENS machine isn’t always as effective once you transition into the active phase of labour. When contractions are consistently more frequent, and increasing in strength and intensity. Using a TENS machine for the early phase of labour whilst at home, then the use of water immersion (in bath or birthing pool) once you have removed the TENS machine has been shown to be of benefit too.

It tends to be most effective during the early stage of labour. When you’re starting to experience some irregular tightenings (almost period type pain) with or without lower back ache.

The earlier you apply a TENS machine the more effective it can be. The aim is to be stimulating more natural pain relief into your body so you can’t feel the pain sensation as intensely. It doesn’t take the discomfort away completely, but many pregnant women say it helps reduce the feeling of discomfort.

Where can I use a TENS machine?
A TENS machine can be used at home, or on the labour ward. If you’re planning to have a bath during the early stage of labour, either have your bath first and apply the TENS machine when you get out. Or remove the TENS machine just before you get into the bath. Don’t forget to switch off the machine by the controller before removing the sticky pads! If someone is helping to remove the pads and it’s still switched on, they can get a bit of an unpleasant sensation. It’s not harmful but can give an unexpected fright. 

Where can I get a TENS machine?
Some hospitals provide TENS machines. If yours doesn’t, you can hire or buy one.

How do you use a TENS machine?
A standard TENS machine has two sets of wires that each have two sticky patches attached to the end of them. You place the first two sticky patches to either side of your spine – just below your waist on your lower back – and the other two patches sit higher, again on either side of your spine, on your upper back and just below your bra strap. A useful tip is measure two finger widths either side of your spine, then apply patches.

Applied in this way, you will recognise which buttons control the upper patches and which control the lower ones when you increase the sensation on the control. When you do, you will feel a slight tingling sensation. But if this is very uncomfortable, turn the sensation down as it’s likely too high. 

When you experience a contraction, you can then turn up the stimulation. Some machines have a boost button to give extra stimulation! 

Are there any side effects?
There are no known side effects for you or your baby and it is considered safe to use.

It is non-invasive and easy to apply. You can still remain mobile and it doesn’t have any effect on your level of consciousness. You remain in control of how you use it. It can easily be applied and used in your home environment when the early phase of labour starts.

Some disadvantages are that it may not be an effective form of pain relief throughout your labour. It can’t be worn when you’re in the birthing pool, having a bath or shower. However, early use of a TENS machine and then removed to get into the birthing pool to use water immersion as a form of pain relief has been shown to be of some benefit. 

Am I eligible to use a TENS machine?
The majority of pregnant women can use a TENS machine during labour if they wish to do so. Discuss with your midwife if you are unsure if it’s suitable for you.

If you have an implantable electronic device, then you must seek medical advice from your consultant about the most appropriate forms of pain relief suitable for you to use.

Birth partner and TENS machine
The use of a TENS machine is found to be beneficial as it’s something that helps you to feel in control as you are in control of its use. It’s advisable that you are in control of the device when you’re wearing it as if your birthing partner was to increase the pulsations too high this could be very uncomfortable for you. 

You do need the help of another person to apply the TENS machine patches to your back, so it’s a nice way for your birthing partner to feel useful. However, always remember, make sure the device is switched off when the patches are being applied and removed.

Further reading

Comparison of the effects of TENS stimulation and water immersion on relieving labour pain suffered byprimiparas. (.pdf 258kb)Ewa Grymel-Kulesza1 , Katarzyna M. Pawlowska2 , Jakub Pawlowski2 , Agnieszka Grochulska2 , Marcelina Belkius3, Izabela Jerzak4. Copyright © 2021 Via Medica