Pain is complex, but it’s something we can all identify with.
Not only are there different types, causes and severity levels, you can also experience pain in different areas of your body.
We’ve all suffered back pain at one time or another!
The treatment options are as varied as the causes, from acupuncture, herbal therapies and over-the-counter medications to injections, chiropractic treatments and in extreme cases even surgery.
Another pain relief alternative currently gaining popularity is Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Therapy also known as TENS.
A TENS unit can be used to treat joint, neck and back pain, post-operative pain, period pain, migraines and even labour pain.
Furthermore, if you suffer from pain due to multiple sclerosis, endometriosis, arthritis, fibromyalgia or sport-related injuries, it might also prove helpful.
In this article, I’ll take you through my buying process and the various TENS devices that I considered before deciding on the best TENS unit that I wanted to go with.
I’ll also cover the uses of a TENS unit, the benefits of owning one, and the important features to look for when purchasing this device.
What is a TENS Unit?
The abbreviation TENS, means transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, which is a form of treatment that can help ease pain and bring pain relief in areas of the body that ache.
This kind of treatment is achieved via a TENS device.
It is a small, battery-operated, electronic machine with adjustable settings.
Attached to the device are electrodes which look like tiny cords with small adhesive pads at the end of each one.
The pads are stuck onto the body above the aching areas.
Once the pads are stuck on, the TENS unit will send small electrical currents to stimulate the nerve endings to the areas of the body under the pads.
Purposely electrocuting oneself doesn’t sound appealing, nor does it sound like it would relieve pain, however, the jolts of electricity are small enough that it is safe to use.
How Exactly Does a TENS Unit Work?
The TENS unit works by attaching the adhesive pads to the area on your body surrounding the painful area. So if you suffer from lower back pain, you would stick the electrode pads on the skin surrounding the sore area.
Once attached, you then turn on the unit and set the appropriate level of intensity that you require.
The machine transmits electrical currents which travel through the electrodes and into your skin and the tissues underneath.
These electrical currents or impulses then inundate the nervous system ultimately decreasing its ability to send pain signals to your brain.
A study published by the US National Library of Medicine shows that TENS can indeed prove effective in lowering or blocking pain signals travelling to the brain.
Additionally, depending on the frequency of the unit, the electrodes can cause your body to release endorphins -which act as natural pain relievers providing pain relief.
This pain management treatment is safe and non-invasive and there are no major side effects; some devices offer pain relief for up to 24 hours.
What to Look for When Choosing a TENS Unit
If you’ve never used or purchased a TENS device before, the process might seem a bit daunting – especially with so many options now available.
Well, to make your life easier I’ve shared some of the best features to look for when choosing the best TENS unit for you.
Typically units are battery-powered or charged via USB, and are not plugged straight into a mains supply.
Most TENS devices are of the battery-powered kind. Some require one 9-volt battery and other models may require three AAA batteries. It all depends.
Given the day and age we live in, some of the more ‘tech-savvy’ buyers may prefer a TENS unit that is chargeable via USB.
These type of TENS unit are becoming more available, however, the battery type still tend to dominate.
If you don’t want the hassle of having to spend money on buying batteries then the USB charged TENS unit will be a better choice.
However, some people may prefer the simplicity of using batteries.
TENS and EMS Treatment
If you’ve already heard of TENS, you may have come across the similar term EMS (electrical muscle stimulation). The two are often confused.
Both use electrical pulses to target areas of the body, but the difference between the two is in their names.
Whilst the TENS will target nerves, EMS targets muscles.
Many of the best TENS units will have both these options available in one device.
Number of Channels
The device has different channels, frequency modes and intensity levels of electrical stimulation which you can set according to your pain level.
A TENS device which is ‘dual channel’ means that it is able to send two different intensities across its electrodes.
This is beneficial if you wish to work on two different parts of the body with two different intensities, or if you are feeling in a generous mood, a dual channel TENS unit can be shared them with someone else.
If you want to keep your sessions with your TENS unit simple you may not need a dual channel unit.
Pad Quality & Availability
Different TENS units will come with a different number and size of pads. This may be an important factor depending on the part of the body you plan to use them the most on.
But even more important than that is the quality of the pads. A quality pad should be able to be reused many times and not lose its stickiness.
The better the quality the pad the less deterioration it takes and the less stickiness it loses over time, which means it saves you money from having to keep replacing the pads all the time.
Another factor to consider is the availability of the pads.
How easy are they to buy?
The last thing you want is a TENS unit brand to either go bust or decide not to make their pads available anymore.
Be sure to select a TENS unit which is made by a reputable brand who plans to stick around for the long haul.
A proper TENS unit is one that gives you the option of different therapy modes.
This will allow you to set the unit to particular settings based on the type of pain you’re experiencing.
Some of the TENS devices also come with different modes which mimic different types of massages.
For some people, this may not be necessary and may even make the whole process overly complexed.
Some of the TENS devices I have come across come with 24 of these modes.
Does this seem like overkill to you?
You will need to decide whether these modes are of benefit to you or not. If you don’t need that many then you can buy a simpler TENS unit and save some money in the process.
This is important because different types of pains and certain areas of the body will require a different intensity level to alleviate the pain.
For example you will likely require a higher level of intensity for back pain as opposed to neck pain.
Most TENS devices have 20 or more intensity level options so make sure to read the description before you purchase.
The number of intensity levels is likely to be the most important factor.
Ideally, you want a TENS unit with many levels so you can find the right intensity of electrical current you need to relieve your pain.
Durability & Comfort
You’ll want to invest in a unit that is high quality and durable.
Given that TENS devices are small and portable, many people use them while on the move or when they are working.
Some units can be attached to clothing, clipped onto a belt or held in a trouser pocket.
Since TENS devices are likely to be with you for most of the day it should be built in a way that it won’t break the first time you drop it.
The material used to make the product is not always displayed in the description, but a money-back guarantee or some kind of warranty is an indicator of a good product.
Prices can range from about 30 bucks on the lower end, to over 300 dollars.
Keep in mind that more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean that the product is a good buy, but many of the best TENS devices are indeed on the higher end of the budget.
Compare the low and high-end options and look at the features that account for the price of the item, and then choose something that offers the best features and work within your budget.
The Best TENS Units on the Market
In this section, I’ll look at the best TENS units that are available for home use.
These top 10 were chosen as they represent a good spread of functionality.
Everyone has different preferences so make sure you know what yours are and that you select the best device to meet those needs.
1. iReliev TENS EMS Combination Unit
This TENS and EMS unit combines two therapies in one device and features dual-channel versatility, adjustable timer, and 80 MA intensity.
There are 14 pre-set therapy modes to include an Arthritis TENS mode, 7 TENS pain relief modes, and 6 EMS muscle strength and recovery modes.
Like all TENS devices, the machine sends low-voltage electrical stimulation to your skin, which blocks the pain signals to your brain by stimulating the nerve fibres.
Additionally, the EMS can aid in strength training and even act as a rehab tool while offering post-exercise recovery benefits for athletes.
This is endorsed by licensed Physical Therapist, Joe Noel who practices in the state of Florida and uses the device in his practice for muscle conditioning and RX strength pain relief.
The iReliev TENS Unit is incredibly light yet has a large 2.20-inch backlit screen.
In addition, it does not require batteries and once fully charged you can get many sessions out of the iReliev TENS Unit before needing to charge it again.
This portable, lightweight device is ideal for home, work or travel and if you’re not satisfied with your purchase you can return it within 14 days for a full refund.
So, if this is within your budget and you’re on the hunt for a high-quality unit, give iReliev a try; it is one the most highly revered selections on our list.
Pros: EMS and TENS combination, can be charged via USB or mains, small and lightweight, good battery life, dual-channel, physical therapist endorsed
Cons: Relatively high price tag
2. HealthmateForever TENS Unit
The HealthmateForever TENS unit is one of the cheapest units on this list yet goes much further than most as it’s both a TENS and EMS unit.
It has proven to be one of the more popular TENS devices due to its low price and high functionality.
It has 15 modes which include 9 for different body parts and 5 massage modes (knead, acupuncture, tapping, cupping, scraping) and one random mode.
If you want bang for your buck then the HealthmateForever TENS unit is a viable option for you.
Keep in mind that the quality of build may be lower than some of the other units on this list.
Furthermore, if portability is important to you, then you may want to look at a different model as this one is a lot larger than the others.
Pros:Both a TENS and EMS unit, value for money, backlit LCD display, dual-channel
Cons: Requires batteries (3 AAA batteries), not as simple and easy to understand as other units (vague instructions), the lowest intensity may be too high for some, bigger than other units
3. Omron Max Power Relief TENS Electrotherapy Device
The Max Power Relief is Omron’s latest TENS unit, which offers 6 pre-set pain modes, 3 massage modes each with 15 different power levels.
Omron has described this as their most powerful TENS unit to date which will attract many buyers looking for a powerful yet compact unit.
This model is easy to use and simple to control with only 3 buttons on the unit.
One potential drawback is that it requires 2 AA batteries unlike some other units on this list which are fully rechargeable.
In addition, the screen on the Max Power Relief unit is not backlit so it may not be as easy to read as some other TENS units on the market.
Where it does excel is its Long Life pads which can be used up to 150 times.
This is far more than most other competitor pads and you’ll find yourself saving heavily on pads in the future as they don’t need replacing as frequently as other models.
All in all the Omron Max Power is a popular TENS unit which packs a lot of power.
Pros: Small, light and compact, easy to use, more power than other units, comes with Omron’s special ‘long-life’ pads
Cons: Not USB rechargeable – requires 2 AA batteries, screen not backlit, units that are slightly cheaper can be just as effective, 15-minute max sessions
4. iReliev Wireless TENS EMS Unit
The iReliev Wireless TENS Unit gives us a glimpse of the direction that all TENS units will evolve to eventually with its adoption of wireless technology.
This is the second iReliev branded TENS device on this list.
The difference between this one and the TENS unit already suggested is that the connection from the unit to the pad is totally wire-free.
That’s right, with the iReliev wireless TENS Unit there are no wires running from the unit to the pads making this the ultimate TENS unit for users who want to use their unit discretely and not have the mess of countless wires running all over the place.
This makes it a great Tens device for chronic back pain.
The other huge benefit of this model is that it is not only a TENS unit but also offers EMS functionality to help relieve muscular pain in addition to the types of pain a TENS unit typically targets.
There are seven TENS programs plus an additional one for arthritis, six EMS programs making a total of fourteen in all.
The iReliev wireless TENS Unit is a groundbreaking device due to its wireless capabilities.
If you’ve used a TENS machine in the past you will know that one of the biggest hassles are the wires getting tangled up. With this TENS device, this becomes a problem of the past.
Like all things, with new technology and additional features, this TENS unit becomes a lot more costly than the other TENS devices, however, if you have the budget for it, it is totally worth it.
Pros: TENS and EMS unit in one, USB rechargeable, wireless – no messy wires from unit to pads, backlit screen
Cons: Wireless functionality means it costs a lot more than the other TENS devices
5. TENS 7000 Unit
If you’re looking for a powerful device to help relieve your chronic pain then the TENS 7000 could be the device for you.
The TENS 7000 is one of the most popular and highly regarded TENS unit on the market due to its effectiveness and ease of use.
The TENS 7000 comes with five different modes (Burst, Normal, Modulation, Strength-Duration Mode 1 & 2) and the two knobs at the top of the unit can be used to control the pulse amplitude or intensity levels of the electrical stimulation.
In addition, the TENS 7000 can be used to treat two parts of the body at the same time given that it is dual channel.
Whilst its simplicity may be a big plus to some, others may be more attracted to other TENS unit models which have large backlit touch screens and don’t look like they were made in the 1980s.
Furthermore, it doesn’t have some of the extra bells and whistles like some of the other models do such as USB charging and a backlit screen.
If you want something cheap, powerful and proven to be effective. This is the one to go for.
Pros: Dual-Channel, easy and simple to use, low price, powerful
Cons: Not chargeable via USB, not as aesthetically pleasing as other newer models, not feature-rich
6. TENS Unit and EMS Combination Muscle Stimulator
This muscle stimulator is perfect as a physical therapy and occupational therapy aide, and it comes equipped with both TENS and EMS functions.
The TENS feature is ideal for muscle pain and soreness while the EMS functionality is designed for athletes, to help with quicker muscle recovery and improved muscle performance
This device has 4 electrode pads and 2 channels with the option to separately control the intensity level of each channel.
Furthermore, this TENS unit gives you the option of 12 modes and 20 intensity levels.
You can also customize the length of your treatment session thanks to the 60-minute adjustable timers.
The unit has a large display unit and an auto-shutoff function for prolonged battery life, and the product comes with an acupuncture chart, 6 latex-free electrode pads, a pad holder, and 4 lead wires.
Users of the TENS Unit & EMS Combination Muscle Stimulator have noted that the screen cracks easily, the pads may fall apart and some find the instructions complicated.
However, it does provide multiple modes and intensity levels and has both TENS and EMS functions-a great pick if you need a physical therapy and occupational therapy aid.
Pros: TENS and EMS functions, dual-Channel, large Screen, automatic shutoff function to extend battery life
Cons: Low-quality pads, screen cracks easily
7. AUVON Dual Channel TENS Unit
This pain relief machine boasts 20 pre-programmed modes to include shiatsu, kneading, tapping and hammering to massage your muscles— to help with pain and muscle fatigue.
The rechargeable unit can facilitate 10 hours of usage and offers fully isolated dual-channel options.
This allows you to massage two different areas of the body at different modes at the same time.
Along with your TENS machine you’ll receive a USB cable and charger, a pad holder and punch, 4 square electrode pads, 4 x large rectangle pads, and 2 lead wires.
The company also offers a 12-month warranty on the product.
Users have complained that the TENS device has to be reset each time it is used, and the pads lose their stickiness relatively quickly.
However, this is one of the cheaper units on our list and there is a 12-month warranty so it’s a good option in you’re on a tight budget.
Pros: 10 hours of usage, 20 pre-programmed modes, 12-month warranty
Cons: Pads lose their stickiness quickly, machine has to be reset each time, difficult to use
8. Compex Sport Elite 2.0 Muscle Stimulator with TENS Bundle Kit
This is one of the higher priced TENS units on this list and is mostly focused on muscle stimulation.
It is also designed for pain relief and injury prevention, along with muscle warm-up and recovery.
It runs at a lesser frequency than other units on the market, helping to generate the endorphins in your body, increase local blood flow; ultimately promoting muscle relaxation after an intense competition or workout which can leave your muscles fatigued.
The Compex Sport Elite 2.0 Muscle Stimulator comes equipped with 5 different progression levels and 10 essential programs.
These include TENS unit, 2 warmup programs, 4 strength programs and 3 recovery programs— designed for endurance, sore muscles and strength building.
If you’re an athlete or participate in any workout or training program you can easily incorporate this muscle stimulator into your routine.
It will enhance your endurance during activities of very short intervals such as sprinting and jumping.
The device also helps to increase muscle size and density and increase your athletic performance over time.
There have been complaints about the bulkiness of the item, and the high price tag is another popular complaint.
However, if you’re an athlete or someone who often suffers from fatigued muscles, this is the ideal selection to complement your workout regimen.
Pros: Great option for athletes, focuses on pain relief as well as increasing motion and function, 2-year warranty, perfect for athletes
Cons: Expensive, complicated setup, bulky
9. TechCare Plus Massager
The TechCare massager is easily one of the better TENS units available for home use. Not only that, but it comes at a very affordable price.
There are plenty of standout features of the TechCare Massager, however, it’s most prominent feature is it’s 24 pre-programmed modes (which is significantly higher than most other competitors).
Each massage mode mimics different massage techniques you may get from a massage therapist such as tapping, acupuncture, deep tissue, cupping etc.
Each mode is truly unique with different benefits and you’ll be sure to find the relief you are looking for by selecting the mode that most applies to you.
The TechCare massager also comes with a large backlit screen making it easily viewable.
In addition, the battery boasts a 20-hour battery life and you’ll be saving your money on batteries given that it is chargeable via USB.
The TechCare TENS unit is a great all-round option that comes at a low price.
Pros: Dual-Channel, 24 Massage modes and plenty of intensity levels, backlit screen, 20-hour Rechargeable battery
Cons: Better instructions needed
10. Easy@Home Professional Grade TENS Unit Electronic Pulse Massager
This professional-grade TENS unit has 20 power levels offering you a range of intensity from very mild to extremely powerful.
It has 5 automated massage program options and 3 traditional massage modes, and comes with 4 electrode pads and a leather storage bag.
Like the IReliev which uses standard batteries, the Easy@Home Professional Grade TENS Unit uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery which can be charged via USB or DC.
Offering powerful pulse intensity this device doesn’t just help to relax the muscles and relieve pain.
If you engage in athletic activities this is a good option for pain relief and management.
Additionally, this portable device is user-friendly and has a large backlit LCD screen so you can easily adjust the channels and modes as you see fit.
It is also backed by a 1-year product quality guarantee.
Previous customers have noted that the intensity buttons malfunctioned after some time, while others complain about the short battery life.
Also, this is one of the more expensive TENS machines on the list.
Despite these hiccups, this professional-grade machine is user-friendly and comes with a 1-year warranty.
So, if money is not an issue and you can afford to invest in a high -quality TENS machine, this might be the one for you.
Pros: 1-year product guarantee, user-friendly, professional grade
Cons: Battery life is short, intensity buttons may malfunction after a while
The Best TENS Unit: IReliev TENS + EMS Combination Unit
In the end out of all the TENS machines I decided to go with the iReliev TENS Unit.
This machine offers a perfect balance of price, quality and user-friendliness. It’s a TENS and EMS unit combined and comes equipped with 14 pre-set therapy modes and 25 levels of intensity.
There are also 8 pre-set TENS programs, with 1 specifically designed for pain due to arthritis, and 6 pre-set EMS programs aimed at muscle strengthening and recovery.
Due to its lightweight and small design the IReliev TENS + EMS Combination Unit is ideal for home, work or travel and has an easy-to-use interface.
Since using this TENS machine I have found the unit lasted a very long time on one charge and at the same time was very quick to charge up via USB.
One of the biggest advantages of the iReliev TENS Unit is that iReliev has been in the market for a long time so it’s very unlikely they will stop producing replacement pads.
In other words, finding replacement pads for your iReliev TENS Unit will never be a problem.
The iReliev TENS Unit is not the cheapest option on the list, but don’t let that deter you from getting this TENS unit; the great features make the price worthwhile.
On the other hand, if you ok with stretching your budget a little further, I highly recommend the iReliev Wireless TENS Unit.
It offers the same features as the iReliev wired TENS Unit mentioned above except that it is totally wireless.
This means no having to untangle wires or having wires hanging off your body whilst using your TENS unit.
I’ve taken it for a test and the power and response is exactly the same as the Wired version.
If you have the budget, then the iReliev Wireless TENS Unit is the best TENS unit of them all.
Related: iReliev TENS Unit Review
Benefits You Can Expect From Your New TENS Unit
If you’ve never used a TENS unit before, you might be wondering if it’s really worth investing in.
These TENS machines have their benefits and are being used in countries around the world to treat varied pain-related conditions such as back pain and other chronic pain.
Some of the benefits include:
Aids in Muscle Recovery and Relaxation – Some units are designed to help athletes or persons who engage in daily exercise regimens and suffer from muscle aches and pain. A 2007 research, published in the Journal of Clinical Science concluded that TENS was effective in treating delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Produces Endorphins – These are described as the natural painkillers in your body. When you attach a TENS unit to your skin, the electrical stimulation impulses can signal these hormones in the brain for your body to produce endorphins to further aid in pain relief.
Minimal Side Effects – Unlike many other pain management treatments which often have several side effects (some worse than the pain itself) TENS does not. There have been a few instances where users had allergic reactions to the pads that attach to the skin, so if you have allergies you may want to pay special attention to the type of material used in these pads.
Portable and User-Friendly – The TENS machines are smaller than many cell phones and can easily fit in your pocket or small bag. Due to the size and lightweight factor you can also travel with the device from home to work or even take it with you on vacation. This is perfect for someone who always suffers from back pain.
Offers Longevity – Unlike pills or injections that can wear off over time the TENS unit offers a long-term solution for pain relief and chronic pain. These devices are meant to last for several years with proper care.
Pain Relief – A TENS unit is best used only for short-term pain relief and is not intended to deal as a permanent remedy for chronic pain. It may be useful for general, neck, knee and back pain.
It is also commonly used for helping pain associated with arthritis and period pains. People who are recovering from injuries sustained during sports may also find a TENS unit beneficial.
TENS unit Best Practices
Before the end of this article, it’s important to remind you to carefully read and follow the instructions outlined for your TENS unit.
If you are unsure about anything, consult a professional who will be better able to guide you.
Also, Medical News Today recommends that you refrain from using a TENS unit if you suffer from epilepsy, heart problems, or if you wear a pacemaker or any metal or electrical implant.
Additionally, if you are pregnant do not use the device on/around the abdomen or pelvic regions.
TENS units are not meant to treat every type of pain; we can only speak to the ones outlined in this article.
Finally, make sure that you use the product as instructed so that you can get the best results from your TENS unit.