A TENS machine, short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, is a battery-operated device which helps with pain in labour.
How does it work? The TENS machine is connected by wires to four rectangular sticky pads which are attached to your back. Once switched on it transmits an electric current which feels like pins and needles. The electric current interferes with the pain signals going to your brain which then interprets these sensations differently. It also stimulates the release of endorphins, your body’s natural painkillers and importantly provides an alternative sensation to distract you. Just as biting your thumb might help if you stub your toe!
Most forms of pain relief come with side effects, an epidural might cause immobility, Entonox gas might make you feel drowsy, opiate injections might affect your baby. The TENS machine doesn’t have any major downsides other than you not liking it. You can still mobilise with it on and it won’t affect your alertness. Your baby won’t be bothered at all by a TENS machine and it won’t interfere with the rhythm of your contractions.
Other forms of pain relief work best when you delay using them until labour is advancing. The TENS machine is different and works best when it is started in the very early stages of labour. That difficult time when your contractions are not regular enough for you to call your midwife or go to hospital. This is because the sooner your body produces its own endorphins the better. As the contractions get stronger you can increase the TENS and it can work well.
There is a comfort in being given anything to help when in pain. You get to hold it, press the buttons and decide how high you want it. It can give you a feeling of control at a time when it may feel like you don’t have much!
Although many women only need a TENS until their baby is born, it may be used in conjunction with other forms of pain relief. You can have it on while using Hypno birthing techniques and while using Entonox gas. It may also help while you are waiting to use water for pain relief in a birthing pool or while you are waiting for an anaesthetist to administer an epidural. It definitely shouldn’t be used with water though so you will need to take it off for obvious reasons. It can last for hours and hours providing you put the pads back on the backing strip when not using it.
For the sceptical among you, I would say give it a try. You really have nothing to lose!