I wore a TENS machine for a week to manage my period pain… this is what happened.
January 27 2022 | Written by Madi Hanaka (She/Her)
Disclaimer: this blog is based on my personal experience. Your own experience with menstrual pain and/or a TENS machine may not be consistent with what is explored in this blog. If you are concerned about your pain and are curious what solutions may be best for you, we always recommend speaking directly with a doctor.
A friend of mine once told me that she used to stay home from school when she got her period. Every month, her cramps would get so bad that she would spend at least one day of her cycle lying on her bathroom floor, crying. As someone who had always experienced a limited amount of period pain, this was shocking to me. That is, until I started having painful periods myself.
About two years ago, my menstrual pain really took a turn for the worse. I had the type of cramps that force you to lay in bed for days at a time, sit with a hot pad on your pelvis until your skin breaks out into a heat rash, and pop Midol like they’re skittles. Having been burdened with my complaints, my mother bought me the perfect birthday gift this year: a TENS machine. Other than the typical heating pad/midol combination, I had never ventured into the world of period pain relief products… Until now. In this week’s blog, I will be sharing my experience using this supposed period pain remedy, and discussing whether or not it’s worth the hype.
TENS stands for “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation.” A TENS unit is a small device, usually battery operated, that sends electrical pulses through to your body by way of little wires. On one end, the wires are attached to the machine, and on the other, to electrode pads that you stick onto your skin. TENS units are not specifically made for period pain relief, rather, they are often used on various parts of the body like your neck, back, feet, and more. According to Jen Gunter, the reason as to why these machines reduce pain remains somewhat unclear, however, there is a reasonable amount of evidence that TENS can be effective in alleviating period pain.
Aside from the obvious benefit of TENS being a potential remedy for menstrual pain, they are also extremely lightweight and transportable. Because of their small design, they can be clipped onto your clothing and worn while walking around or doing other activities.
There are also a number of options in terms of price point depending on your budget. TENS machines can range anywhere from $30-$100+ depending on the brand or type, so you can likely find a unit that suits your needs and doesn’t break the bank.
Here are a few potential options:
**Note: we have not personally tested the above units - please seek a medical opinion if you are unsure of which unit to purchase
As a general rule, my period only lasts 3-4 days per cycle, with my cramps being at their worst slightly before menstruation begins and while I’m bleeding. While using the TENS, I followed the directions provided in the box, which instructed me to set my pulse rate between 70-120 Hz, and my pulse width between 70-120 µs. Below, I’ve organized my experience with the TENS machine into three sections: Day One - Before Menstruation, Day 2 - Beginning Menstruation, and Day 3 - During Menstruation.
Fun fact, my machine had three "treatment modes".
- Burst simulation
- Constant simulation
- Modulation simulation
My favourite was constant simulation!
Day One - Before Menstruation
When my pain is at its worst.
The day before my period starts is almost always the worst day in my cycle in terms of pain. On this particular day, I had woken up with little to no cramping, but as the day went on, it got significantly worse. By the early evening, I was experiencing severe cramps, and I knew this was a clear sign that my period was on its way!
**Colours correspond with the pad pair (attached to the same wire, adjusted together)
Before using the TENS machine, my pain level was at about an 8 on a scale from 1 to 10. I placed all four pads on my lower back, two of them were further apart, lower on my back, and above those, the two remaining pads were slightly closer together (see image). I started slow, turning the machine to a 1 on the intensity scale (power of the electrical current). I stayed sitting upright and although it was on a low setting, I felt a pretty intense tingling sensation where the pads were. It wasn’t painful, but definitely felt unfamiliar and slightly uncomfortable.
After about 10 minutes of sitting, I decided to lie down, which caused my cramps to become more intense. To compensate for this, I turned the TENS machine up to a 3 on the intensity scale. In this position, my cramps definitely improved - the dull constant pain had subsided, and instead, I was just experiencing periodic shooting pains in my uterus. 15 minutes into using the TENS machine with these settings, I decided to use a hot pad in addition to the machine. With the pads on my back, I used a heating pad on the front of my pelvis. This method was quite effective, reducing my pain to about a 5 out of 10.
Day Two - Beginning Menstruation
The pain was still pretty bad, but after a bit of experimenting, TENS started to kick in big time!
On the first day of my period, my pain was back up to a 7 on the pain scale, and I decided to experiment with the pad placement.
This time, rather than putting all four on my back, I put the first two on my lower back and the other two on my front pelvis where my uterus is. I turned the machine up to a 4 on the intensity scale, and stayed seated upright. I turned the machine on for 15-20 minutes at a time, taking 5-10 minute breaks between each round. I repeated this process 4-5 times and over the span of an hour-and-a-half my cramps were at about a 1 on the pain scale, if not completely gone!
Day Three - During Menstruation
Now we’re getting the hang of it!
While I was actually bleeding, my pain wasn’t nearly as bad as the first two days, only sitting at about a 6 out of 10. Using the same placement as the day before (two on my back and two on my front), I decided to try to put the machine to work while I went about my day. I cleaned my house, cooked myself a meal, and even took bathroom breaks while using the TENS machine, all the while barely remembering the dull pain I had been feeling that morning. Normally by this time in my cycle I would be taking it easy, probably taking a painkiller and relaxing with a heating pad, but while using the machine I was able to move around freely and easily while managing my pain at the same time. Within the hour my cramping had fully subsided.
There are limited proven risks to using a TENS machine but there are a couple precautions to keep in mind. For example, if you happen to have a sensitivity to the gel on the sticky pads or leave the machine on for too long, you may experience some skin irritation. TENS unit instructions also warn against placing the pads too close together as electrode contact with one another could result in skin burns or improper stimulation. If you have certain medical conditions like heart problems or epilepsy, if you are pregnant, or if you have other specific concerns regarding your personal health, definitely consider talking to your doctor before using a TENS machine.
As someone who suffers from extreme period pain almost every cycle, I definitely recommend the TENS machine.
Don’t get me wrong, on days where I have mild pain, to be completely honest, I’d sooner take a Midol or Ibuprofen to get me through. However, on days where the pain is so intense that I can’t go about my daily activities, having this machine definitely comes in handy.
While other remedies like heating pads can also be effective, this requires me to set aside a couple of hours out of my day to lie down and relax, and quite frankly, sometimes I don’t have that kind of time. Alternatively with the TENS machine, I can alleviate some of my pain while still being able to be productive. The machine itself is also small enough that even if I had to leave the house, I could likely stick it in my pocket or hook it on my pants under a sweater, and the pads are fairly discrete (both small and quiet).
I’m not sure if there will ever be a universal, flawless cure to period pain, but for your every day menstruator trying to cope with extreme cramping, this is absolutely an option worth considering.