my friend, the TENS machine

rocking the endo-chic look

I use my TENS machine as part of a self-imposed treatment plan for the chronic pain I endure thanks to my long-time companion endometriosis. I’m going to briefly explain what the TENS machine is, its pros and cons (for me) as well as how I personally use the machine.

What is a TENS machine?

A Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation machine. Catchy, huh? We'll stick with TENS.

The basics of the TENS machine (from an admittedly non-sciencey perspective): you send little electrical pulses around the body (mainly the ouchie areas) in order to achieve a few things. First, the pulses can throw the nervous system way out of whack (tricksy little hobitses) by intercepting pain signals between the ouchies, the spine and the brain. This means that the pain you should be feeling from the ouchies doesn’t necessarily register in the old noggin. This can make for a much more relaxing time of it. Secondly, the pulses stimulate the creation of endorphins in the body. Endorphins = natural pain relievers = yay. The third benefit of the TENS machine is entirely non-sciencey: it’s a bloody good distraction.

How do you use it?

(Please refer to the picture in order for this to make a vague amount of sense).

You place several (usually four) adhesive pads onto your sore spots: straight onto the skin, nice and sticky. There are specific rules about the distances you should keep between pads but for that level of detail I’d head on over to the product-specific user manual. Anyway! Each of the pads is connected to a wire that leads to the “stimulator”. Sounds a bit cheeky and maybe even a bit exciting but is in essence just an old-school-walkie-talkie-looking controller. You use the stimulator to adjust the electric pulse frequency. WARNING: each product will vary and what may be a cute little ‘level two’ on one device may be a near-electric-chair level on another. So start off slow and find out what works for you.

As your body adjusts, you will inevitably work your way up the levels: if you’re a chronic pain gal like myself then this climb to the top won't take too long (absolute G status). You can use the TENS machine for as long or as little as you need. I’m pretty sure chronic pain sufferers are meant to opt for a longer, lower-frequency sesh but if I’m honest, I just do whatever I need to do to feel a bit better on the day. If you start building up immunity to the higher levels (as has been suggested by some super brainy sciencey folk) then try fluctuating between lower and higher intensities where possible.

What are the pros?

I would say the main perk of the TENS machine is its versatility. It is commonly used by women in labour, those recovering from sports injuries, those with arthritis and of course those with period/gynae-related fun stuff (like endo).

My favourite thing about the TENS machine is that it’s all about you. The way you use it is up to YOU. When you use it is up to YOU. Plus, it’s a totally non-invasive treatment for endo when compared to some of the usual alternatives: cutting you open or pumping you full of knockout level drugs that come with their own plethora of cheery side effects.

The pretty obvious, final pro: it helps ease pain! This may seem obvious but I can’t stress it enough. It may not work for everyone but I’d say it’s worth a serious bash if you can afford it (not usually too pricey). If you suffer with chronic pain like myself, it could be the godsend you didn’t know you needed.

What are the cons?

In my opinion, there is one glaring con to the TENS machine. As you may have noticed from the photo: the device is not so subtle. When someone has taken pain medicine with breakfast, you can’t often tell from looking at them (perhaps a more hooded eye or greenish undertone, but generally not). When someone has had surgery, unless they whip out the scars on the reg, you may be none the wiser. The TENS machine is a little more… out there. The combo of wires and stimulator (usually hooked onto the belt-loop of my jeans) looks a little suspect at best. Let’s just say I wouldn’t wear my TENS machine in an airport.

Another slightly sucky thing: you can’t use it to fall (or stay) asleep. It’s incredibly dangerous (as is probably glaringly obvious) to be hooked up to an electrical device while unconscious. You’re no longer in control. I imagine the TENS would work wonders in helping you get to sleep but for the love of you-know-who, don’t chance it. Stay safe.

It’s not a cure-all. I don’t know if that should count as a con. It doesn’t seem quite fair since nothing can ‘cure’ endometriosis per se. But I suppose it has to be said: it’s a pain reliever not a pain remover. For me, the pain can stay at bay for several hours after I disconnect from the machine, but equally some say it only works for as long as they’re physically attached. I think that’s a person-by-person kind of thing.

When and how do I use it?

This is a pretty no-shit-sherlock kind of comment but: I use my TENS machine when I'm really bloody sore. I find myself using my TENS machine mostly at home and mostly when I’m in dire need of a (positive) shock to the system. My endometriosis often sees my lower abdomen go into spasm. I find the TENS useful for re-regulating those spasms: it puts me somewhat back in the driver’s seat.

I have been known to use my TENS machine whilst out and about. Just last year: if I had a bad flare-up, I would wear the machine in my university classes. However, in line with the above about the not-so-subtle visual of the TENS, be prepared to maybe explain the machine (and your need for it) to certain observant and curious individuals.

So that’s my take on the TENS machine and its use for endometriosis specifically. I hope that wasn’t too boring (or indeed too whistle-stop). Please fire me over any questions you may have: I mean it!

Thanks for reading. Endo and out.

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