The Best TENS Units For Back Pain Relief

A Chiropractor's Review & Recommendations

Dr. Spathis Pic

                             
As a chiropractic physician my product recommendations are made with spinal biomechanics in mind as well as practical factors such as cost, ease of use, etc. I hope you find my recommendations useful; however, if you have a specific spinal problem or condition, and have not yet done so, it is recommended that you contact your qualified health care provider for specific recommendations that may apply to your particular case.

Peter C. Spathis, DC

The Best TENS Units To Relieve Back Pain

My review and recommendations of specific TENS units for back pain relief is given below. However, instead of just giving you a chiropractor's recommended TENS unit list, I am providing some background information on TENS that I hope you will find helpful. Transcutaneous electical nerve stimulation, or TENS for short, is a method some people have had success with in relieving back pain. A TENS unit is a small battery powered device with electrodes that can be placed on painful parts of the body to deliver a mild electric current and help reduce pain. There is some debate as to the actual mechanism of action for these devices with current theories including endorphin release, improved circulation and nervous system effects. Whatever the mechanism, many people do find these units helpful in relieving back pain or discomfort in other symptomatic body areas. If do decide to try one of these devices, the following points are worth considering.

Doctors of chiropractic, medical doctors, physical therapists and other health care providers sometimes use and/or recommend TENS units to help patients relieve back pain. Similar to the more expensive units used in professional settings such as chiropractic and physicial therapy offices, home TENS units supply an electric current that crosses the skin and stimulates nerves and muscle tissue for the desired therapeutic effect. Unfortunately, home units do not usually have the versatility of professional devices or the supervised attention received at a health care provider's office. In addition to greater control of electrical pulse duration, frequency, intensity, treatment cycles, etc., when used in a professional setting, the provider can also ensure proper pad size and placement, device settings and other treatment parameters.

A distinction between TENS and EMS (electrical muscle stimulation) should be made at this point. While an electric current crosses the skin to achieve desired effects with both TENS and EMS, the treatment frequency (Hz) and other properties of the current differ between the two. A TENS device provides mostly a sensory effect while an EMS unit can elicit a motor response by stimulating muscles in a way that causes them to contract. The therapeutic result of this can include "massaging" the area, helping flush out metabolic waste or even rehab effects like muscle strengthening and conditioning. As EMS is more than just a pain relief modality, many therapists and chiropractors will use this in their office to achieve a specific treatment goal. It is possible the TENS you receive at your providers office is actually EMS. I have included 2 units below with EMS features; however, as treatment protocols for EMS are different than simple TENS, you should discuss your needs with your qualified health care provider to help achieve your desired treatment outcome.

Considering the relatively low cost of home TENS units, such a device may be worth trying for back pain relief. If you do want to use a TENS unit for back pain, please do so with the advice and direction of your qualified health care provider as certain contraindications do exist and some people should, in fact, not use one. For example, these units are generally not recommended for use on areas with decreased skin sensation, areas of broken skin, in pregnant patients and those with a pacemaker - you would not want the electric current to interfere with your pacemaker! There are other contraindications, including but not limited to, avoiding use on certain areas of the body such as parts of the head, front of the neck, throat, eyes, heart or electrode placements that cross the chest, and more. Additional general contraindications include not using these units while submerged in water, while sleeping, or with certain medical conditions so please discuss with your qualified health professional how appropriate such a device would be for you, as well as reading package instructions, before using a specific product.

The good news is that, if a TENS unit is appropriate for you, they are generally very easy to use. Most often you have electrodes that plug into the device and connect to adhesives pads which can be placed on painful parts of your back or other body areas. The most painful part of your back is normally in between the two pads. Depending on the type of unit you purchase, it may have only one or multiple "channels", allowing you to treat more than one area at a time. Each output, or channel, typically involves 2 pads. Different units allow varying degrees of control over individual channels and can allow a diffent type of treatment at various body regions - different intensities, pulse frequency, etc. So, after putting the pads in the area of pain and adjusting the intensity to a comfortable - not painful - level, the user can experience the therapeutic effect of the device (hopefully, pain relief!). Again, please read the package instructions as well as consulting your health care provider for specific directions that may be appropriate for your particular case.

When discussing TENS units for relief of back pain, or pain elsewhere in the body, and providing information on how to pick the best unit, you may be surprised that I would include this one when, admittedly, I don't believe it is the "best". However, I am including it because it may actually be the best choice for some people. Yes, this unit is as simple as it gets - 1 channel, basic features, not rechargeable. It does, however, provide everything you need for basic TENS application. If you have never used a home TENS unit and not sure if one would help, this one may be a good choice due to its ease of use and very low price.


Its low cost and functionality make this a popular TENS unit for home use to help relieve both acute and chronic back pain. It allows control of pulse frequency, intensity and session duration as well as having 2 channels. This allows either 2 or 4 pads to be used during a treatment (2 from each channel) so you can treat either one area in different ways or 2 different areas at the same time (refer to product instructions). If you plan on using this unit frequently, you should be aware that it does not come with a rechargable battery. If you only use a very low intensity setting, this will allow the battery to last longer and it may be sufficient. However, if you have chronic back pain or plan on using this unit frequently, the next TENS unit may be a better choice as it comes with a rechargeable battery and may end up saving you money in the long run.


This is another 2 channel unit but with a little more treatment versatility. In addition to TENS, this device has some EMS capability with 24 preprogrammed "massage modes" to pick from. This allows you to better tailor your treatment session to one that is most effective for you. It comes with 10 reusable pads of different sizes allowing you to pick the most appropriate sized pad for the body area you are treating. This unit also features a rechargeable lithium battery. For those with chronic pain, I believe a rechargeable battery is important as it should end up saving you money in the long run. The combination of features, functionality and price make this unit a great value and a good choice for the home TENS unit needs of most people.


This is a TENS/EMS combination unit. This means that, in addition to the potential back pain relieving effects of TENS, it has EMS settings to allow for the "massage", flushing of metabolic waste and muscle strengthening/condition effects mentioned earlier on this page. For someone interested in a combination unit, this one has 2 channels and the functionality most people require in a home device. However, if you plan on using TENS or EMS on a frequent basis, esp. at higher intensities with both channels at the same time, a rechargeable battery would be a useful feature that this device does NOT have. In these cases, the following unit may be a better choice for you.


This is another versatile multichannel combination unit with both TENS and EMS settings. However, this one comes with a rechargeable battery - a nice feature for those who plan on frequent device use either with TENS to relieve back pain or with EMS for the benefits described above. Although this is a little more expensive than the above unit, the rechargeable battery may end up saving you money in the long run. This is my personal favorite of the devices listed on this page and a good choice for those interested in a home unit with both TENS and EMS functionality. Please discuss specific application and treatment protocols with your health care provider to maximize the effectiveness of this device and best meet your specific needs.