Electrical stimulation of nerves has been commonly used by physical therapists since the 1970s. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) Therapy uses low-voltage electrical impulses to relieve the type of chronic pain associated with mesothelioma. The term “transcutaneous” means that the therapy is delivered through the skin.
How Does TENS Therapy Work?
This methodology is self-administered once the patient has received instruction. The therapy uses a battery-powered machine that resembles a pocket radio. Two electrodes attached to the device that carry the electrical current are positioned on the skin. The area where these electrodes are placed can be either a pressure point or the location of the pain. The idea is to generate a circuit of electrical impulses that runs parallel to nerve fibers.
The placement of the electrodes is critical. If they are misplaced, the pain may not decrease. In fact, incorrect electrode placement could actually cause the pain to become worse.
The device has settings for different wavelength frequencies, like a steady, consistent flow of current or a single burst of current. There are additional settings for the intensity of the electrical current, too. All settings are pre-determined by your doctor.
The mechanism behind the control of pain is believed to be either that:
- The electricity from the electrodes stimulates the nerves in an affected area to give off signals to the brain to block pain signals.
- The electrical stimulation of the nerves may assist the body in producing endorphins. These are the body’s own painkillers.
How Did TENS Therapy Originate?
The basis for the design of TENS Therapy was the Gate Control Theory developed by Dr. Ronald Melzac and Dr. Patrick Wall in 1965. These physicians believed that when certain nerves are stimulated by electricity, the spinal closes a kind of “gate” that inhibits the body from feeling pain.
The first TENS unit was created by Donald Maurer, a biomechanical engineer, while he was working for Medtronic, Inc., a medical device manufacturer. The product that Maurer and his engineering team developed was originally used to pre-screen patients for their ability to tolerate implantable pain control devices Medtronic manufactured. However, Medtronic began selling the TENS device instead of its other product line.
In 1977, after Medtronic rejected another of his inventions, Maurer left Medtronic and founded his own company, Empi, Inc. Maurer marketed a German-manufactured TENS device until a new investment group backed Maurer’s attempt to design his own TENS unit, and financed the venture through a public stock offering.
Is This Therapy Considered Safe?
According to the American Cancer Society, TENS is considered safe. However, the non-profit did have some specific warnings:
- Electrical current that is too intense or that is used incorrectly can burn or irritate the skin.
- The electrodes should not be placed over the eyes, heart, brain, or front of the throat.
- People with heart problems should not use TENS.
- People with allergies to adhesives may react to the electrode pads.
- Those with implanted pacemakers, defibrillators, infusion pumps, and other such devices should avoid exposure to electric current.