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Do Tens Units & Back Braces Really Help Back Pain?

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Initial post: Jul 10, 2011 10:00:53 AM PDT
I was prescribed a tens unit to help relieve the back pain that I have due to 6 falls in 10 yrs. Nerve blocks, PT, exercise hasn't helped. The tens unit is to block the nerves from sending signals to the brain, which is suppose to help my back pain & muscle spasms. This one unit, however, doesn't mention anything about muscle spasms. He also prescribed a back brace to be worn to correct posture and help support the weak back muscles and spine. I haven't even opened the box, as it's very expensive $600, even though insurance paid for it. The last one I had tended to ride up the back every time I would sit down, so am concerned this new one will do the same. I am curious, is their anyone out there that has tried either one of these devices and had any luck with them?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 10, 2011 11:05:07 AM PDT
ColdShot says:
I had a tens unit during my knee therapy for a torn meniscus and it did help.

have you looked at prolotherapy dot com?

they offer alternative therapies for certain back issues.

it may be what you need for relief.

Posted on Jul 10, 2011 12:51:01 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 10, 2011 12:53:59 PM PDT
spookiewon says:
TENS helps some people with chronic pain and does not help others. Some theories say that it helps pain that is nerve-related, others disagree. With TENS, you just have to try it and see. There's no pat answer.

For me, TENS has been super! I have several kinds of chronic pain, including severe facet joint arthritis in my low back, peripheral neuropathy from my cancer treatment, and fibromyalgia. TENS has been great for the low back pain, and relieves the neuropathy pain most of the time. I use it daily and have worn out or broken 3 machines in the last five years. The insurance company paid for the first one, and I've paid out-of-pocket for the others. They are not expensive, and the electrodes can be bought inexpensively as well, if you shop around. My last supply of electrodes came from Amazon, in fact.

There are two types of TENS--high frequency and low frequency. The first should help with pain in minutes, but the relief may not last more than an hour or two after treatment. Low frequency TENS takes a while to work, but the relief lasts for many hours. Electrode placement matters more with low frequency TENS so you might want a PT to help you learn placement. For high frequency TENS placing the electrodes around the painful area works just fine. Many rehab specialists use lots of different modes for muscle relaxation or other effects as well. For example see this page:

Functional braces also may or may not help. You won't know until you try, and a $600 professionally fit brace shouldn't ride up. If it does, your PT should adjust the fit until it doesn't.

For me, TENS has been a miracle. This LGMedSupply TENZ Unit with Digital LCD and 4 Electrodes is a professional TENS unit often used by PTs. It's $33. Even if it doesn't help, you're not out much. I use a four channel model, but they usually start at $120 or more, and two channel is fine unless you have multiple pain sites to treat, as I do.

Posted on Jul 10, 2011 1:31:33 PM PDT
If you have a Chiropractor in your area that practices the NUCCA techniques, I recommend getting evaluated.


Posted on Jul 10, 2011 1:45:35 PM PDT
spookiewon says:
I've also got great relief from kinesiology taping.

Posted on Jul 10, 2011 11:35:21 PM PDT
Phil G. says:
For better or worse, the only person who can answer the question of whether the tens unit will help is you. As others have indicated, tens units help some people but not others. For me, the tens did help moderately, but the help was very temporary. Turn the unit off and soon the pain returns. However, if the insurance company paid for it, give it a try. Insurance companies are making millions from people's health issues. You might as well get your money's worth. (Sorry for that tangent.) You will probably need a PT adjust the settings for the tens unit. If you get pain relief, it may take time and be a matter of trial and error to get the best settings, placement and time for using the tens. Keep in touch with your PT. I wish you the best.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 7:28:09 AM PDT
OldAmazonian says:
A friend with a similar problem says Gabapentin helped.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 8:21:58 AM PDT
Hi ColdShot,
I remember you for other discussions, some including my back. I'm glad that the tens unit helped you, I just need to use mine more, I think. I just wish I knew if it helped the muscle spasms, which it doesn't seem targeted to do? I'm sure that their are ones that do, but need to check with my doctor to see if they carry another brand. I bet they don't, as doctors tend to stay with one company. I will look up the prolotherapy that you mentioned and check it out. What brand do you have and does it include pain relief and also muscle relief? Mine is made by RS.
Thanks, Linda

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 2:07:59 PM PDT
Thanks for the suggestion, but I don't feel that his product would help me. I already suffer from minor depression and my pain is caused a lot by the joints, so after reading about it, I don't think it's for me. I do remember a long time ago, trying this drug, not sure why it was prescribed or why.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 2:12:14 PM PDT
Thanks Phil,
I tried it twice today, didn't have success so far, but probably need to do it for at least a week to know. I don't know why this company doesn't have a unit that does both things, that you can wear on your waist and walk around. They offer, two separate units, one for each thing and then the one that does both things, can only be used sitting down. I need to see if my doctor uses another company. I don't need the PT to tell me how to use it, as it's pretty simple. Thanks for your help.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 2:13:12 PM PDT
I don't think that is for me either, but I appreciate you bringing it to my attention.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 2:18:25 PM PDT
Hi J.J.,
I don't think this is type of procedure is for me. I've been to a lot of good Chiropractor's and they have helped, but one wrong move and I'm out of adjustment again. I don't want to get into that again, even though this is entirely different. I also have some arthritis and disk problems already in my neck.
Thanks, however, Linda

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 11, 2011 5:48:24 PM PDT
Dana Young says:
I used a TENS unit while laboring with my 3rd child. I won't say that I had no pain, but it did help me to manage my back pain and generally to distract me a bit during labor. I ended up not using any drugs to deliver my beautiful baby boy (19 years ago). : )

Posted on Jul 11, 2011 6:17:22 PM PDT
T. Wittig says:
I use a tens everyday and have found it extremely helpful. I have a very inexpensive tens and it relives both the chronic pain and muscle spasms. I have taken Gabapentin and although it did help I do not like feeling groggy. The tens provides a great NO DRUG pain relief. I hope you find what works for you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 6:43:49 AM PDT
I agree with theall the points raised in this post. You just have to try the TENS unit to see if it helps. I have had 6 back surgeries and live with chronic pain. I was prescribed a small TENS unit that I could wear and use during the day. I later was prescribed a professional TENS unit which does not allow for mobility but the relief lasts much longer. I know have a spinal cord stimulatror implant which is for lack of a better description, like having a TENS unit on the inside of your body. It helps cover my areas of leg and low back pain. For chronic pain folks I wold recommend they research the spinal cord stimulator made by St. Jude Hospital to see if its right for them. It has allowed me to lower my pain meds and lead a more functional life. No wires to deal with as it is all implanted. As for the brace, most of the PT, Neurologist, Occupational Therapy, Dr's I have dealth with have lead me away from a back brace with the understanding that it limits your movement which weakens the muscles supporting your back. As always ask your physician what is right for your specific condition.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 7:46:56 AM PDT
Hi Dana,
I'm glad that it helped you. Was it the kind of TENS unit that controlled, pain and muscle spasms? The one my doctor ordered only helps with nerve pain. I need both, so I need to call and see if he uses other TENS systems, but I bet he doesn't.
Take care,

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 7:51:35 AM PDT
Hi T. Underwood,
How often a day do you use your TENS unit and what brand is it? I can hardly walk when I get out of bed in the morning. I used it twice yesterday and it didn't seem to make any difference. I've used it once this morning, but still had to take the pain and muscle relaxer medication. My tailbone being injured has given me the most pain, especially sitting and the spine problems, arthritis add to it. I need to also look for a good portable seat cushion to sit on, as my other one lost it's cushioning. It has to have a zipper on it, as that's what is required to go into our Pro football stadium. Any suggestions would be appreciated, by anyone out there who use one.
Take care,

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 8:00:53 AM PDT
Hi Richard,
You posted a very helpful post. I think your situation with your back is worse than mine. I've been able to stay away from surgery so far. I've heard about the spinal cord stimulatror, but wouldn't want to do that yet. I am trying to get myself back in the pool at the gym for water aerobics. I suffer from panic attacks and it's hard to get out of the house sometimes. I did those for over a year, had a slip and fall and then didn't get back into it. I really feel so out of shape and have lost a lot of strength. I think the arthritis is really adding to the problem, along with the Fibromyalgia. I guess I'm falling apart. I agree with you on the back brace and want to do more research on it. I'm hoping that I get more advice on this site, as to how other's have done, using one. To me, even going to the bathroom has to be a pain, if you have to undo it overtime. My Pain Management doctor is the one who ordered it to help me, but I haven't opened it yet, as I don't feel that I'm going to use it. I didn't use the other one for the same reason.
I have an appointment with my Pain Doctor next week, will really question him about it. Their has got to be something better that will help me, hold up my weakened stomach, from 3 children, along with my weak back, than this bulky brace.
Any suggestions on a good seat cushion, if you've ever had to use one?
Take care,

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 9:00:10 AM PDT
L. Mcgovern says:
I have a bulging disk in my lower back from pulling a heavey loaded pallet at work. I couldn't do instock any more after that. My doctor gave me a tens unit to use to relieve the pain because everytime I was given pills they made me sick. Tens unit is the best thing I ever used. It works on my back taking the pain away by 99%. I will never live without it. Way better than pills. Hope this information helps you.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 9:52:14 AM PDT
I use a lumbar support I got at Wal-Mart for the car in the automotive section. It is mesh so it breathes. I use it in the house as well. For a seat cushion I just use a piece of memory foam, works great. I had 3 microdiscectomy / laminectomies in 2000, 2003 and 2009 after I fell at work. The pain was so bad in my legs and back that I felt I had no other choice but surgery. The surgery did work and relieved my pain but over time, the pain retruned. The last option was a spinal fusion. After talking to sevral Dr.'s I found that the fusion does not work for everyone so why do it. The spinal cord implant is working well for me and if at any point it does not it can be removed. Insurance companys are approving the spinal cord stimulators vs back surgery first. Hope you are feeling better soon. Don't let chronic pain ruin your life......

Posted on Jul 12, 2011 3:16:50 PM PDT
M. Raja says:
Personally I loved what the Tens unit did for my neck and shoulder pain, but my PT told me that what I found invigorating other people found quite painful, so it's also how you interpret the signals the unit sends: helpful and soothing, or downright painful and scary.

I would also really REALLY recommend you talk to a reliable physical therapist about your situation, as braces can at times exacerbate a problem. Lots of pain is caused because muscles surrounding a joint/disc are too weak to properly support them, and thus a brace just does what the muscle should do, causing the whole situation to worsen over time (speaking from experience as an ex-dancer - pay no attention to the name, this is M. Raja's wife). Physical therapy - if done by someone with experience - can also be tremendously helpful with body pain.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 5:25:40 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 12, 2011 5:27:26 PM PDT
ColdShot says:
I only used it at the rehab facility, it wasn't mine.

can you exercise at all?

Posted on Jul 12, 2011 7:06:25 PM PDT
nikldac says:
Let's try to make this simple. TENS units are designed to stimulate the nerve between the point of pain and the brain. By stimulating the nerve; it puts up an interference on the nerve path and circumvents the pain signal. For most back pain; use a 4 channel unit (2 -2 pair of leads). Place the red lead near the right side low back or buttocks area - place the black lead of the same channel, on the opposite side near the upper shoulder area. Reverse the positions for the red/black leads of the second channel. Rate should be around 75 - Adjust width to where it's comfortable to you. Width is the length of the electrical signal; rate is how fast. Turn unit on and slowly increase voltage until the muscle starts to twitch - once this occurs...leave voltage in that position for 1 minute. If the muscle does not stop twitching after 1 minute, turn voltage down just enough to stop the muscle spasm. Do the same thing for the other channel. You can wear these dual channel TENS. Be careful and insure that you do not pull a lead wire out of the electrode. Doing so may bite you. The longer you've had the pain; the longer it may take a TENS unit to break that pain cycle. Sometimes a TENS will not block the pain completely...but may reduce the intensity of the pain. They will not cure your ailment. But they can make you pain tolerable in a number of cases.

I haven't sold TENS units since the mid 80's. I've seen them help thousands of people and I own two - 4 channel Staodynamics units that I've had for years. I only use them when I throw my back out; which I try to do less often as I get older. The brands I'm most familiar with are Staodyn, Stim-Tech and Medtronics. I'm not even sure if these units are available anymore.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 9:16:30 PM PDT
spookiewon says:
There are not two different kinds. There are different electrode placements and settings for different types of relief. Conventional (high frequency) TENS uses the GATE method of pain relief. That is, it acts on the large fiber nerves and essentially sends a continuous signal through the nerve which preents the nerve from sending a pain signal. Electrode placement isn't real important, except that the electrodes should surrond the painful area. Low frequency TENS used at the dorsal horn rather than the painful area is an even more direct action on spinal nerves. Electrode placement is VERY important with this type of TENS since you want the spinal nerve that affects the painful area to be stimulated--kinda like a nerve block works. High intensity TENS can also be used for muscle relaxation but here, again, placement of the electrodes is key so the muscle is alternately activated and relaxed, for a massage-like effect. Finally, Low intensity TENS, at the pain site, can cause a release of endorphins for muscle relaxation and pain relief.

Again, the focus on what brand you get is irrelevant. There is only one kind of TENS machine. There are different kinds of electrotherapy, but only one kind of TENS machine, that can be used at varying intensities and varying settings for different effects. I know you don't think you need a PT's help with it, but it is not as simple as you are making it. The one machine does MANY different things, depending on where the electrodes are placed and what settings you use. As to how often and how long to use it, that's the great part of TENS. You can use it as much as needed. At times, when my pain is bad, I use mine almost continuously. Other times I use it once or twice a day for half an hour or an hour. It should not take weeks to work. Conventional (high frequency) TENS should provide some relief in a few minutes but sometimes doesn't last very long after the machine is off, and low frequency TENS should help by the end of the treatment and last for many hours.

In addition to TENS, other electrotherapy include Interferential Therapy (IF), Galvanic Stimulation, Electromuscular Stimulation (EMS or E-Stim), and Iontophoresis. A few companies make machines that do both EMS and TENS (as mine does) but even these are not fundamentally different, and ALL TENS machines will relieve pain AND relax muscles. You just need a PT to show you how to place the electrodes and set the machine for these two different things. The same companies who make TENS devices often make some of the other electrotherapy machines as well, but there is only one kind of TENS machine. The one you have from your doctor is essentially the same as mine, and the same as everyone here who has a TENS machine. Your doctor doesn't carry other brands because they are all the same.

Why don't you think kinesiology taping is for you? It's REALLY cheap to try and millions of people with chronic pain and injuries, not to mention many thousands of athletes swear by it. Lance Armstrong, David Beckham, Venus Williams, And Kerry Walsh can be seen using it every time they compete. It is especially effective for back pain.

You seem pretty focused on getting another brand of TENS machine, and despite asking for help, you dismiss everyone's answers as "not for you." I don't advocate seeing a PT for very long, for anyone. But a few sessions to learn how to place TENS electrodes and set the machine to give you muscle relaxation and pain relief is really pretty necessary.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 12, 2011 9:22:03 PM PDT
Hi Spooky,
I'm sure not trying to be difficult, so I'm sorry if I came across that way. I'll answer this more tomorrow, which is today, but it's after Midnight and I have to get up early. You have some valid points and I need to keep a more open mind. I'll discuss it in more depth tomorrow.
Take care and I appreciate the concern.
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Discussion in:  Health forum
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Initial post:  Jul 10, 2011
Latest post:  Aug 22, 2013

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