If you are planing on a natural childbirth you may be asking- Can I use a TENS unit while pregnant?
Everyone has pain at some point, whether due to stress, strain or injury. Pregnant women are far from alone in this since we all experience muscles, tendon and ligament pain when we over-exercise, are in accidents, have to live a sedate lifestyle for a period of time or have tightness from stress.
Some women would say that they are even more prone to these issues. Pregnant women often already have some kind of history of muscle strain from childhood or later. Of course, pregnancy itself also brings some issues with it.
My own experiences have proven this to be absolutely true. One of my friend’s wife had very minor back strain from doing gymnastics as a teenager, but when she began to deal with normal weight gain during pregnancy her back pain returned.
She also began to feel stressed out mentally and physically weakened by a combination morning sickness and days missed from work. All of that made her back tense and she began to experience muscle spasms. Once she was past the morning sickness she thought she would feel better, but she had taken some time off from work by then and had been staying in bed some due to the severity of the nausea.
She was firmly against taking oral medications for morning sickness or pain. Unfortunately, the sudden return to work meant more physical and mental stress on a back that had become weaker from resting. It was long before she was seeking options besides medications that might harm the baby.
We did some research together and she talked with her doctors about the options. She had used a TENS unit once before after a car accident caused a temporary back injury. It had been very effective on her back pain. She took some literature with her to the doctor to ask about the use of a TENS unit. We had found this information to ask about:
“Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has been used by pregnant women for many years without any reported side effects for either mother or baby.”[i]
Talking with the Doctors
My friend was very specific about her concerns and the information she had located in research. She had major concerns about the possibility of inducing labor too early, the side effects of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and the possibility of overdoing the use of the TENS therapy.
She was concerned about side effects for herself while her hormones and other chemistry remained altered and side effects for the unborn baby.
The doctors agreed that there was always a risk of inducing labor if a TENS unit was used during the wrong phase of pregnancy or without the approval of medical practitioners.
They pointed out that TENS unit had been used in some studies as a method to induce labor in women that were overdue, although the results were not conclusive. Another issue that was surprising to us was that the use of the TENS unit could plausibly induce labor even when used on parts of the body that one does not usually associate with induction.
There are points on the body that could be considered “trigger points” and have been known by acupuncture specialists for centuries.
“Induction of uterine contractions: There is concern that uterine contractions may be stimulated and labour induced if TENS is used over specific acupuncture points.”[ii]
However, in spite of this evidence, my friend was told that there was plenty of evidence that if a TENS unit is used only in specific locations and only under medical guidance, it could have the potential for pain relief.
They suggested that there were other alternatives to be considered such as physical therapy and massage. However, when pain is present that is so acute that the pregnant patient cannot tolerate it without the use of something more intense, a TENS unit is a far better option than oral medications.
Even mild over-the-counter pain medications can have serious effects on the organs of baby and mother. Prescription medications and particularly controlled substances should be avoided at all costs. Given that, it was important to remember this information from a study abroad:
“TENS effects are rapid in onset and there are few adverse effects or drug-interactions; TENS has no potential for toxicity or overdose and is economical when compared with long-term drug therapy.”[iii]
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Why should you trust me?
I have extensively used TENS units for neck, shoulder, back and knee issues and became familiar with TENS therapy through countless visits to my chiropractor and physical therapist’s office. I have spent many hours researching and reading how TENS therapy can alleviate pain.
I consider myself knowledgeable in the use of TENS units and have used them regularly to help manage pain over the years. Many of my recommendations are from firsthand experience/use and hopefully my information can be a benefit to you.
Check out where a TENS unit can be placed safely and effectively:
Need help wondering how to use a TENS unit? Check out my TENS Placement Guide for how to place the TENS pad for:
Medication and Pain in Pregnant Women
My friend called to let me know what she had learned. Her pain issues were fairly severe and she had also been reading about the safety of using a TENS unit during labor for that pain.
We discussed the option to use mild medications such as ibuprofen or even resort to medications like narcotics used in the past. On a quick glance, we found a lot of information guiding us away from those options.
“In clinical practice, TENS is not the first treatment of choice for women presenting with musculoskeletal pain during pregnancy. However, if pain remains a significant factor, then TENS is preferable to the use of strong medication that could cross the placental barrier and affect the foetus.
When a pregnant woman presents with low back pain and/or pelvic girdle pain, including symphysis pubis dysfunction, TENS may be beneficial if the pain is persistent or is a hindrance to further improvement, especially when the alternative is medication that would cross the placental barrier.
Although no side effects from the use of TENS during pregnancy have been reported in the literature, specific potential areas of concern are the induction of uterine contractions, the effects on foetal heart conduction and the possibility of teratogenic effects induced in the foetus.”[iv]
Labor Pain and the TENS Unit
For labor pain, the studies were interesting. We found few signs that there was any reason not to try a TENS unit for labor pain even if it didn’t prove to be effective. Some women had experienced relief while others did not.
Many women studied said that would try it again if they had another pregnancy. The TENS unit certainly seems to present insignificant risks to the baby or the mother once a healthy labor has already begun.
“There aren’t many downsides to using the TENS during birth, other than the fact that its effects can vary widely from person to person. Studies are inconclusive regarding exactly how and why it works, and why it might work very well for some people and not at all for others.
Still, in a Cochrane review of evidence regarding TENS, the majority of women who used it said they would use it again in a future labor. Use of TENS is not recommended for people who have pacemakers and it can’t be used while you are in a shower or a bath (or once you get an epidural).”[v]
The Bottom Line
The TENS unit has proven to be of use in pain relief for a number of different conditions. People have used them for back pain, but also for limb injuries, peripheral neuropathy, migraine headaches and other symptoms.
There are always some cautions. They should not be used in patients who have pacemakers or used in a location on the body too near certain arteries. However, they are very useful tools that don’t have any medication-like side effects.
If you are interested in using a TENS unit for pain during pregnancy or for labor pain, approach your specialists and family doctors early on before you give it a try. Under supervision, though, a TENS unit may be exactly what you were looking for.
Thank you for reading,