When you’re suffering from back pain, it’s impossible to think about anything else besides getting relief and getting it immediately. For those of us who suffer from chronic back pain, it can be stressful worrying about when the next spell of pain will occur or what activity will incite the next bout. While many of us have our chiropractor on speed dial, often the prospect of waiting for an opening in their schedule is as painful as any adjustment could be. Thankfully, there is transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). If you’re familiar with it, you’ll be happy to know there are units you can operate yourself from home. Keep reading for a comprehensive TENS unit buyer’s guide that will ensure you purchase the machine best suited for relieving your back pain.
What Do You Need a TENS Unit For?
Before you begin considering TENS units, you should get clear on what your goals are for purchasing one. Obviously, you want to relieve your back pain. However, as you probably know or may have even experienced, not all back pain is the same. The best kind of TENS unit for you, therefore, will depend on the kind of back pain you suffer from.
Presumably, if you’re interested in a TENS unit, you’ve experienced one before at your chiropractor’s. If this is the case, consider speaking with them about the kind of frequency your back needs. While it’s unlikely they’ll recommend the kind of TENS unit they use in their practice with all the customers they see every day, you should expect that they can explain to you the type of frequency they recommend for your pain.
Some people need lower frequency which helps to release endorphins, for example. Others benefit more from high frequency, which can bring on almost immediate pain relief. Still others need a combination of the two.
From this conversation, you should have a good idea what kind of frequency you need from your TENS unit. Most units have an output that ranges from 10 Hz to 50 Hz. This should be able to cover most patients’ needs. However, if you need something outside of that range, you might have to ask your specialist for a recommendation.
It’s also important how much power the machine can put out at once. This relates to how much you’ll feel the frequency being administered. Your average unit will have an output of roughly 80mA. A higher end TEMS unit will be closer to 130mA. That doesn’t mean you must always use the full 130mA though. It’s beneficial, however, as you can adjust the power to the level you find most comfortable. It might also come in handy later on to fight habituation.
The electrodes on a TENS machine are the means with which current is transferred to your body. They’re the often round little paddles that are attached to the machine by cords. Most TENS units come with four electrodes, though some only come with two. Others will have six or eight. Again, this is where it’s helpful to have prior experience with a unit so you know what to look for. Studies have shown that where the current is delivered to the body can be just as important as the frequency used when it’s delivered. So you’ll want to be sure you pick a unit with enough electrodes to cover the important parts of your body.
Digital or Analog
When it comes to administering the actual electric current to your back, you will do this through one of two ways based on the machine: either analog or digital. Analog is generally used for older machines and refers to knobs wherein you turn them up as you would the volume on a stereo to increase the output. Digital means you have buttons and will be accompanied by a digital readout, letting you know how high or low the output is. For people new to using TENS machines, digital is recommended as it will allow you much greater control.
While free extras should not be the reason you pick something as important as a TENS unit, it could be the difference maker between two comparable machines. Many will include free gel, for example, for attaching the electrodes. Others will include free electrodes should anything happen to the first batch.
Two extras that can actually make a difference are spare batteries and changeable electrodes. Spare batteries are fairly self-explanatory. Some machines, however, won’t operate with normal batteries you can buy at the store. Instead they’ll use their own, model-specific battery that needs to be recharged. It’s nice to have an extra one on hand in case you hurt your back and the initial battery is out of power. Can you imagine waiting around for a battery to charge while you needlessly suffer through back pain?
You also might find you love your TENS unit, but that the electrodes aren’t satisfactory. They might not deliver the frequency over a large enough area, for example. In a case like this, it’s nice to have a unit where the electrodes can be easily removed and replaced with a different kind entirely.
Like anything of worth you buy, look for a machine that comes with a sound warranty. This speaks to the manufacturer’s faith in their product. Obviously, that’s something you want went it comes to administering current to a sensitive area of your body. However, given that you’ll often be applying a fair amount of weight to parts of it for prolonged periods of time, it’s important that a warranty speaks for its durability.
Along with a warranty, another vote of confidence in a machine is if the company will allow you a free trial period. Even if you have all the technical aspects down, it’s often hard to judge a machine until you’re actually using it in your home.
Be sure you speak with your specialist before buying your own TENS unit. If you’ve never experienced one before, this is especially important. Back pain can be awful; don’t pay to make it worse by purchasing a machine you know nothing about.