An Interesting Option for Pain Relief | TENS Units During Labor

Tens Units

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation

Obi tens

I am always excited to learn about cool things that help my clients cope with the intensity of contractions.  The pink paisley bag that I bring to all my doula clients' births is filled with little tools of support.  When I bought my TENS unit and began using it at births, it became apparent to me how useful it was.  Not only does TENS help provide relief and comfort, but I can still use all my other tools in addition to it. Since buying it, every one of my clients has asked to try it and they've LOVED IT!

The idea of electrical nerve stimulation kind of freaked my wife out.

When I took the training on how to use the TENS unit the other students and I took turns placing the electrodes on each others backs and trying it for ourselves, but when I brought it home raving about it, my wife was skeptical.

Being a scientist, I knew I could convince her with theory. I explained to her the Endorphin Theory and the Gate Control Theory, and about how physical therapists, and athletes use them.  It wasn't until she tried it, and felt the stimulation in her back, did she see how it could be helpful for someone in labor.

So, how does it work?

tens unit in labor

Four electrodes are applied to the back and attached to wires that connect to a small handheld device.  The TENS unit is controlled by the person it is attached to, so they can adjust the controls to what is comfortable to them.   

According to the Endorphin Theory, 40 minutes of continuous use causes endorphins to attach to opiate receptors throughout the body, increasing pain tolerance.  The other theory is the Gate Control Theory.  Pain signals from the body are received and interpreted by the brain. By stimulating the large nerve fibers with pleasant stimuli, you can decrease your response to pain signals sent to your brain.

It's not like an epidural.

A TENS unit will not replace the effects of narcotics or epidurals.  It works with the body and the brain to help with tolerance and coping.  Unlike an epidural, you want to use a TENS unit as early on in labor as you can.  The earlier it is used in labor, the more effective it becomes.  Some bonuses are:

  • can be used with other pain coping measures

  • allows for movement

  • you are in control

  • may help avoid or postpone the use of an epidural

Is there a reason to not use a TENS unit?

Before using a TENS unit, talk with your doctor or midwife about its use.  While there have been no reported events of harm to mother or baby, it is always good to get your care provider to sign off on its use.  A TENS unit should not be used if you have:

  • heart problems

  • a seizure disorder

  • a pacemaker

  • not begun labor

  • a rash or open sore on your back where the electrodes would go

  • plans to only be in water, the TENS unit and electrodes should be removed prior to entering water

Where to get one?

You may have seen them sold at the mall or on Amazon, but please do not use these when you are in labor, as they have not been tested for use on pregnant and laboring moms. 

The two units approved for obstetrical use are, Obi TENS and Elle TENS, which need to be shipped from the UK.

For a local option, you can talk with your doula about whether or not she carries one, or if you don't have a doula, look into doulas who may rent them out. 

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