How Does a Tens Unit Help Neck Pain?

Neck pain can result from poor posture, work, over use and trauma such as a motor vehicle accident. Some symptoms of neck pain can be burning, aching, throbbing, shooting and other unpleasant feelings. There are a variety of treatment options to help with pain such as medication, rest, cold packs and sometimes the use of electrical stimulation. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, is a type of electrical stimulation used for symptom relief.

Close up of a woman with neck pain (Image: Wavebreakmedia Ltd/Wavebreak Media/Getty Images)

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation

A TENS unit is typically prescribed by a health care professional for pain relief. The medical device consists of a microcomputer,control settings, battery, wire leads and adhesive pads that attach and surround the painful area. The settings allow for the time of use, intensity of the stimulation and type of stimulation provided, which can be continuous or programmed to vary while it is on. A TENS unit provides symptom relief but does not heal the injury.

Comfort During Healing

Pain is an unpleasant sensation. When treatment approaches for treating pain are not working effectively, or if someone is using too much pain medication, a TENS unit may be provided to a patient. A TENS unit helps provide comfort during the healing process. When prescribed, a health care professional will assist the patient with setting it up, provide patient education for use and help to select the best setting for pain relief.

How Does It Work?

A TENS unit works by sending a mild electrical stimulus onto the skin over the injured area. Pain and touch travel on the same nerve pathways to our brain. The classic example is when you bang your elbow against something and then rub the area where it hurts to reduce the feeling of pain. The TENS unit works in the same manner. The electrical stimulation either "turns down" or "turns off" the feeling of pain.

General Principles Of A TENS Unit

The use of adhesive pads are placed over or surrounding the painful area. The unit is then turned on until the electrical sensation is felt. Slowly it is increased until the pain can not be felt or reduces. There are various types of settings and most TENS units have built in programs. Different settings may be tried to find the best pain relief. Settings are continuous stimulation, a burst stimulation, on and off varying intensities and pulsing.


Precautions should always be taken when using a TENS unit. If the intensity is too strong and a patient falls asleep they can receive an electrical burn over the area where the adhesive pads are placed. Numbness over the injured region can also be a problem as the patient may turn up the intensity too strong and again create an electrical burn. Overall TENS units are very safe, easy to use and provide effective relief from pain.

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