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How to Use a TENS Machine for Sciatica Pain Relief

TENS machines are a relatively cheap, yet effective, method of achieving pain relief when suffering from sciatica. If you need fast relief from a particularly bad week, look no further than this article!

In this article, we will learn:

  • Why a TENS machine could be a great solution to your sciatica
  • How TENS machines work and how to use them
  • The science-backed research behind their use

tens machine for sciatica pain relief

What is a TENS Machine?

A TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) machine is a small battery-operated remote attached by wires to pads or electrodes. The electrodes are placed on certain areas of the body, and the TENS machine transmits an electric current to those areas.

TENS machines use soothing electrical pulses that are sent via the electrode pads through the skin and along the nerve fibres.

These pulses suppress pain signals to the brain and encourage the body to produce higher levels of its own natural pain killing chemicals.


You can read more about the role the brain plays in sciatica pain HERE.


Many people ask me whether TENS can be used for sciatica pain relief.

For most people, the answer is “Yes”. TENS can relieve sciatica — even the severe radiating pains that my clients often experience. TENS machines provide a safe, non-addictive painkiller alternative that might help you reduce discomfort and gain some mobility from a particularly bad bout of sciatica.

The best part about TENS machines for sciatica is that they are so convenient; you can use a TENS machine at home, at work or when on-the-go. They are also often more effective than the traditional methods of pain relief people turn to during a bad week with their sciatica – such as prescription pain killers – while being non-addictive and with a great deal LESS side effects!

 

The Science Behind TENS Machines for Sciatica Pain Relief

So, how exactly can TENS relieve sciatica?

TENS units send a low-voltage electrical pulse to your skin, which travels through to the muscles and nerves. This pulse does three things:

  • First, it stimulates your nerves and causes the production of endorphins – your body’s natural pain killer.
  • Second, it can also confuse or block pain signals from entering your nervous system and spinal cord.
  • Third, the electrical impulses can help the tight, constricted muscles in the painful area RELAX, providing instant relief.
illustration of how a nerve is affected by a tens machine for sciatica
This is the basic anatomy of a motor neuron, with a nerve surrounded by Schwann cells. The signals passing along the nerve will be calmed down through use of a TENS unit.

 

What Do I Need to Know About Using a TENS Machine for Sciatica?

Depending on the level of pain and desired result, some people may get great benefit out of their TENS unit for as little as one 30-minute session.

Others may need to use the unit for longer – up to several hours a day. But don’t worry – it’s easy to fit the use of your TENS machine around your day as they fit in your pocket and are unnoticeable to others around you.

You will need to place at least two pads on your body when using a TENS machine. This is so the electrical current can travel from one pad to the other via your skin, nerves and muscles. If you wear only one pad, there won’t be any effect.

Keep reading to learn exactly HOW to use your TENS machine for sciatica!

 

Are There Any Side Effects When Using a TENS Machine for Sciatica?

Generally speaking, TENS Machines are very safe and come without the risk profile of many other treatments or medications.

Side effects that do exist are usually no worse than skin irritation if electrodes remain in the same place for several days.

However, patients with pre-existing heart conditions, those who wear a pacemaker, and pregnant women should always talk with their doctors before starting to use a TENS machine.

 

Research Behind TENS Machines for Sciatica

Although research on the effectiveness of TENS machine therapy for sciatica is somewhat inconsistent, most medical professionals agree that the outcome is generally positive.

Approximately 70% to 80% of people with sciatica experience pain relief during their FIRST use of a TENS machine.

However, I feel that using a TENS machine provides something of a “window of opportunity” for people who are looking to start an exercise programme for sciatica but are currently limited by severe pain. If the initial relief of pain from using the TENS machine allows the introduction of gentle exercises, TENS therapy can ultimately lead to very long-lasting pain relief!

In terms of setting up your TENS machine effectively, research has shown that any level of stimulation offers some pain relief.

However, a longer-lasting, deeper level of relief comes when the TENS unit is carefully calibrated to find the correct dosage. This means that it may take some trial and error for you to work out exactly which settings, duration and pad placement work best for you.  Don’t give up too soon if your TENS machine doesn’t work first time!

 

How to Use a TENS Machine for Sciatica

To start the TENS therapy simply attach the electrodes to the machine and then attach the machine to your skin on your legs or lower back. Adjust the unit until you feel pain relief. As I mentioned earlier, it may take several tries until your find the right frequency, duration and strength of electrical current.

Positioning the electrodes on certain specific locations on your lower back and leg can better ease the pain.

This video below provides a great explanation of how to place the electrode pads:

 

Pad Placement When Using a TENS Machine for Sciatica

TENS machine electrode pad placement is critical when using TENS therapy to relieve sciatica.

 

If You Have Back Pain AND Sciatica

One option is to position the electrodes on your lower back near the area of back pain. Adjust the frequency as necessary and move the electrode pads around as necessary to achieve the best relief from your pain.

The pictures below should give you some idea as to where is best for you to place your pads.

Using a tens machine for sciatica, use this position to ease low back pain
Image from tensunitelectrodes.com

 

You should begin to feel relief from TENS very quickly after you have found the settings and pad placement that are best for you.

 

If You Have Sciatica ONLY or Piriformis Syndrome

To relieve leg pain, place the electrodes on the back of the legs. The pictures below should help with pad placement.

Use a tens machine for sciatica pain relief by following the placement of the pads here
Image from tens-ems.com

Again, keep adjusting the frequency and move the pads until you relieve the radiating pains in your legs.

 

General Advice

I would recommend that you place one pad near the “top” of your painful area, and the other pad near the “bottom” of your painful area. You can place up to four pads – you could try two pads on your back and two pads on your legs.

As I mentioned before, try placing the pads at the top and bottom of your painful zone, so the current travels through the painful region between the pads.

If you find one particularly painful region on your back or legs, it’s a good idea to place an electrode right over this spot so the strongest effect occurs through this zone.

 

Summary

I hope you have found the information in this post useful. The only way for you to determine whether a TENS machine will be useful or not for your sciatica is by trying one out. They are usually inexpensive (~£20-£40) and the only part you’ll need to replace are the batteries and the electrodes.

Have you used a TENS machine for sciatica before? How did you get on? Why not leave me a comment in the section below and let me know!

 

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