Drug Free Pain Relief- TENS Machines

So what’s the deal with TENS machines?

Ask any mother in the UK and you’ll get a variety of responses. Some mothers swear by their TENS machine, others say it was a complete waste of money and it drove them to distraction and was worse than the pain of a contraction. Others will say it “didn’t do a thing” and still others wouldn’t face another labour without it.

If you’re reading this and you’re from a country where pain relief options are something like this:
1. Nothing at all
2. Epidural
Then you may be interested and surprised to learn there are several options for pain relief before reaching for the drugs or signing a document for the anaesthesiologist.

TENS Machines are basically little machines that help to transfer electronic pulses through your skin at specific places on your body. You get these little electrodes, attached to wires, that stick on like stickers. The wires are connected to a little hand held device from which you control the intensity and frequency of the pulses.
On, they look something like this

So what does it actually do? 
Theoretically, the electronic pulses are meant to stop the pain signals from reaching your brain, and also stimulate the production of endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain relievers. Some would say that they give a mother a sense of feeling in control of her labour and being able to physically  “do something” when she senses a contraction (or surge for my hypnobirthers) starting.
The reasoning would continue that when a mother is feeling more in control, she’s going to be less tense, which will help her relax, and relaxation is ultimately the best thing for a mother in labour.
Some mothers combine a TENS machine with other techniques such as visualisation. So as a contraction begins, they focus on the little electrical pulses instead of the discomfort, and then once distracted from that, can then visualise themselves somewhere else.
One home birthing mother I know stands with her tens machine in one hand, doing hip circles, eyes closed, visualising herself on the beach with waves building and crashing against her, taking deep breaths.

So when do I use the TENS machine? 
Some of the “it didn’t do a thing” opinions may come from mothers who after reaching a certain stage in labour felt, “ok now I need something, where’s that TENS machine?” Many mothers have found that it’s best to start using the TENS machine at the very beginning of labour, when the contractions or surges aren’t “that bad” or are “less intense”. The reason being that as things progress, and contractions get stronger, you gradually increase the strength of the electromagnetic pulse, and so therefore your “pain tolerance” has a chance to build with with contractions.
One mother’s first labour started around 11:00 PM one evening. When she realised her pains were coming regularly, she put the TENS machine on and then crawled into bed. Throughout the night she dozed on and off through the pains as they came and went. 12 hours later they decided it was time to head in to the hospital and the mother was amazed to discover she had reached 7.5 centimetres with very little discomfort. Effectively the TENS machine helped her to relax through the night so that she could quietly “progress” in the comfort of her own home.

Some mothers like it for early labour and then once things really “get going” they’ll jump into the pool, or add gas and air into the mix.

Which one do I get? 
Well if you’re in the UK, you’ll find there are several groovy looking TENS machines marketed at pregnant mothers. They’re often pink, and look fun to use. Other TENS machines marketed for people suffering with boring old back pain may not look as nice but could be significantly cheaper. Hiring a TENS machine is also an option and many pharmacies offer a service where you just need to buy the electrodes. It’s always good to read reviews, etc. but if you’re in a country with less options, the basic TENS machine should do the job.

Are there any disadvantages of using one?
You can’t use it in the water…for obvious reasons.
It may irritate you an cause you more distress and end up being counter productive.
You may want to have a go with it before labour just to sort of get an idea of what it feels like.
As with anything, if it doesn’t “work” in the way you expected it to, it can leave you feeling discouraged. This is why it’s so important to have the right support in labour and not pin all your hopes on just one technique or plan. Your doula, midwife, or birth partner should be able to help you try something else and work with you to find what’s going to be the best way forward for you.

Any thoughts or experiences on TENS Machines?


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