Having cancer doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have pain. Nor is the amount of pain you feel always related to how advanced your cancer is. Some people with cancer experience little pain, while others experience a great deal.
What can you do? One option is a natural, non-drug, non-pill therapy that you probably won’t hear about from your doctor.
I’m talking about TENS, which stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Transcutaneous means “across the skin.”
TENS involves a small device that sends electrical pulses to your body via sticky pads. You can use it in the comfort of your own home and it’s small enough to use even when you’re on the go.
Helps relieve all kinds of pain
TENS helps relieve both acute and chronic pain without the use of– or sometimes in conjunction with– pain medication. In light of today’s opioid crisis, it’s a good time for chronic pain sufferers to consider this safe, natural option.
TENS relieves pain in two ways: pain gating and endorphin release. To understand pain gating, it helps to understand how pain works.
Pain is a warning system your body uses to inform your brain that something’s wrong. It’s like your car alarm going off when something’s amiss.
Let’s say you have an injury in your hand. Pain signals travel up your spine to your brain. Your brain then decodes the message into the feeling of pain.
Taking advantage of “pain gating”
Dating back to the 1960s, the theory of pain gating tries to explain how your nerves perceive pain and how touch plays a role. Researchers postulated that there are “nerve gates” at the end of your spine. These gates control whether pain signals travel on to your brain or not.
You have two types of nerve fibers, small fibers which transmit pain and large fibers for senses such as touch and pressure.
When a small fiber overrules a larger fiber, the pain gate opens up. This allows the pain signal to travel to your brain, where it’s decoded. This is what causes you to feel pain.
But when the large fiber activity is stronger than the small fibers, the pain gate stays closed. Thus, no pain impulses move to the brain – and hence, no experience of pain.
The pain gate theory explains why we instinctively rub or shake an injury. By rubbing or shaking it, we’re creating large fiber activity that quells the small pain fibers transmitting pain and thereby reduces the sensation of pain.
TENS activates large fibers and shuts down small pain fibers. It does this by creating a tingling or massaging sensation which closes the pain gates. In essence, the pain gets blocked and the message doesn’t travel to your brain. As a result, you don’t feel pain.
Boosts endorphins – your
“feel good” neurotransmitters
Endorphin release is the other mechanism of TENS. Endorphins are your body’s “feel good” hormones. They are neurotransmitters that help reduce the feeling of pain. They also contribute to a sense of euphoria and increased appetite, plus release of sex hormones and improved immune response.
TENS triggers endorphin release via the electrical pulses, like the effect some medications have, but without any dangerous side effects.
Safely reduces pain in cancer sufferers
A published study found that TENS reduced cancer pain in 69.7 percent of cancer patients over the course of two months. The shortcoming of this study was that it included no placebo and wasn’t a blind study.
Still, when it helps over two-thirds of cancer patients, it’s worth sitting up and taking notice.
The University of Kentucky’s Macmillan Cancer Support Center has taken notice. It’s one of the medical centers that recommend TENS to cancer patients for pain relief.
How to use TENS
Most TENS applications are now done using self-adhesive, pre-gelled electrodes. This lowers the incidence of allergic reaction to the electrodes– which used to be latex– and reduces the risk of cross infection, all while improving ease of application and lowering costs.
One of TENS’ biggest benefits is its ability to target the therapy to your body’s pain points. That makes electrode placement critical. Place one pad on each side of the painful area so the electrical current passes through the pain point. If using four electrodes (better than two), create a square or diamond around the pain point.
Never place electrodes on sensitive areas of your body such as these:
- Any part of your head
- Your eyes
- The front of your throat
- Inside your mouth
- On broken skin
- Over a joint (knee, elbow, ankle)
Doctors and therapists suggest that you start at a low intensity for no more than 30 minutes, then increase the intensity little by little. Take at least a 20-minute break between sessions. Pain relief might not occur on the first go-round.
Also, your muscles might twitch when using TENS at high-intensity levels.
Length of pain relief from a TENS session varies from five minutes to 24 hours. No one knows for sure what causes this wide variation. One hypothesis is that pain relief may depend on the type and level of the pain.
Helps muscle, joint pain and more
In addition to treating pain from cancer, people and clinics also use TENS for the following conditions:
- Neck pain (electrodes placed on upper back, not neck)
- Knee pain
- Nerve pain/damage
- Fibromyalgia (calms hyper-sensitized central nervous system)
- Muscle pain
- And much more
TENS is safe for long term use, but because TENS sends electrical impulses into your body, you should not use TENS if you:
- Are pregnant: Pregnant women shouldn’t use TENS during their first trimester and should avoid using it in the abdominal and pelvic areas at all times.
- Suffer from epilepsy. Placing TENS pads on the head or neck could cause seizures.
- Have a pacemaker or any electrical or metal implant.
Have heart problems.
Prescription vs. over-the-counter TENS
Some TENS units need a prescription from your doctor. Over-the-counter (OTC) units do not. Both can deliver pain relief. Here’s what you should know about each.
Prescription TENS units are more expensive but offer higher intensity settings and more treatment modes. They often feature customizable frequencies and wave types. This allows greater precision in targeting pain.
Over-the-counter units usually have fewer frequencies and wave types, but also cost less. Rules changed in the past couple years to allow more features on these models, meaning you can get pretty good units over-the-counter.
There are many reasons to consider TENS for pain relief whether you’re suffering from chronic pain due to cancer or acute pain from an accident, injury, or surgery. TENS may be the safe pain solution you’ve been dreaming of.