Using TENS Unit on Neck – Is it Safe?

February 23, 2020
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When used with care and precaution, using a TENS unit on the neck can be a safe and effective solution for managing pain.

The neck is an essential part of human anatomy. It is the flexible connection joint between the 5kg massive head and the torso. Apart from being strong, it has to be flexible enough to enable lots of movement. Comprised of bones (seven vertebras with the flexible disc between them), strong muscles, and ligaments it is well equipped to handle the stress and strain.

What are the symptoms of neck pain?

However, sometimes due to bad posture, muscle strain, nerve injury, herniated disc, stress, it may experience pain/inflammation. The neck pain can be:

  • Dull but persistent pain throughout the back of the neck.
  • Sharp pain, whenever you move your neck
  • The pain could be radicular, meaning, moving along a nerve.
  • Associated with soreness and restricted movement of the neck.
  • In some cases, numbness in hand can also be felt.
  • Lifting weight could aggravate the pain or result in a sharp stabbing pain.
  • Be accompanied by difficulty in swallowing too in some cases.

You can try cold pack or hot fomentation, over-the-counter pain relievers, and slow gradual movement of the neck to relieve stiffness as a home remedy.

You can also resort to TENS therapy, which is a very practical, convenient, self-administered, safe with no/minimal side effects and economical pain management technique approved by USFDA.

How does TENS unit reduce neck pain?

TENS is the abbreviation of Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. It is a non-invasive, non-pharmacological therapy of pain management. The TENS unit fundamentally consists of a small battery-operated unit, a couple of electrode pads and lead wires.

The electrode pads are placed on the painful area of the body and connected with wires to the unit. The unit delivers controlled and modulated, soothing, electrical impulses through the skin to the peripheral nerves in the painful area.  This electrical stimulation of the nerves results in pain relief.

The Gate Control theory explains the effectiveness of this therapy.

Gate Control theory states that the electrical stimulation of the nerve ending results in blocking the pain signal from reaching the brain. The sensory gate, which allows the pain signal to travel to the brain is closed because of the electrical stimulation.

What is a TENS Unit?

Whenever a severe pain and dull pain/ tingling/ stimulation is felt in the same area, the weaker sensation (tingling, twitches, dull pain) travels to the brain and the severe prominent pain gets blocked.

The working and effectiveness of TENS therapy are based on this theory.

The TENS unit also helps the body to produce endorphin (natural pain-relieving hormones)

The simplicity of working, its effectiveness and ease of operation have popularised this therapy in the USA and Europe.

TENS therapy is beneficial in managing pains of all kinds like:

  1. back pain
  2. knee pain
  3. migraine
  4. post-operative
  5. arthritis

And many more.

Can I put tens unit on my neck?

Yes, you can use TENS to relieve neck pain. Whatever may be the reason for neck pain, TENS can bring relief. It works both for acute pain and chronic pain

The effectiveness of the TENS unit is much dependent on the proper placement of the electrode pads and settings of the unit. Though variation is possible from person to person, some standard guidelines help to be in the efficient zone of treatment.

TENS unit electrode placement on neck

You can use 1 set of 2 electrodes for neck pain, but if possible, use two sets of electrodes. The relief is faster with two sets.

In case you have 1 set of electrodes, place them on either side of the center of the neck.

The following figures show the electrode pad placement in 2 sets. You can place the same set electrodes on each side of the neck, or you can place them diagonally opposite to each other.

TENS Unit Placement on Neck

Placing them diagonally opposite is said to be more effective, but you can have your choice on that.

Whether you use one set or two sets, it is crucial to

  1. Clean the skin to remove any dirt or oil.
  2. If there is hair growth on the affected area, remove it before applying the electrode pads. It will make the pad removal less painful.
  3. Dry the skin entirely.
  4. Place the electrodes in the area of pain for at least 1 inch away, with the painful area in between.
  5. Though they come with their sticky surface, it is always better to stick them up firmly using micropore tape.

The setting of TENS unit on neck

Place the pads securely on the affected parts, connect them to the unit. Put on the unit and set it at the lowest level. A slight tingling may be felt at the neck. Gradually increase it little until you feel strong impulses in the affected area.

Reduce the setting, if muscle twitches or feeling too hot. Set it at a comfortable level. Therapy can last for 30 -45 minutes or until the relief is experienced.

Suggested setting

Pulse rate: 20 Hz

Pulse width: 150 microseconds.

Are TENS safe on the neck?

The use of TENS on the neck is perfectly safe. However, you should exercise the following precautions or care.

The TENS should not be used if

  1. Someone suffers from cancer
  2. The person has epilepsy
  3. The patient is pregnant.
  4. The person has a pacemaker or any other electrical/electronic or metallic implant in the body.
  5. The person is diabetic
  6. The patient suffers from any cognitive impairment

Other precautions

  1. Do not place the electrodes pads on broken skin or wounds.
  2. Do not place the electrode pads directly on the spinal cord.
  3. Never put the electrode pads in the front part (throat) of the neck.
  4. Since the carotid artery is situated on the sides of the neck, do not place the electrode pads on that area.
  5. The electrodes should not be placed touching each other. They should be at least 1 inch apart.
  6. Switch on the unit only after the electrode pads have been properly secured.
  7. Do not drive or operate any heavy machinery, with the TENS unit on.
  8. Avoid using the TENS unit while sleeping.
  9. Do not bathe or shower with the TENS unit on.

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