What is TENS and how can it help in labour?

Libby O'Sullivan

I clearly remember a point in my first pregnancy when I looked down at my growing belly and had a sudden (and quite shocking) realisation that I was only going to get bigger and that this baby had to come out somehow!

I know this sounds crazy, especially for a woman who works a lot with pregnant women…but it wasn’t until I felt the size of the baby inside me that I realised how daunting the prospect of birthing that baby would be.

By the time I got to 35 weeks (and with a much bigger belly), I was completely at ease and felt that all would be ok.

I think this came from a combination of educating myself (with a hypnobirthing course to be precise) and arming myself with some different strategies I could call on in case I needed them. One of my main labour ‘tools’ was a TENS machine. I ended up using it for all three of my pregnancies and found it hugely beneficial.

So what is TENS and how can it help you get through your labour?

TENS is an acronym for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. A TENS machine sends small electrical pulses via electrodes (pads) on your skin into your muscles and tissues. It produces a gentle tingling/buzzing sensation, which can be increased or decreased using the controls on the machine.

Obstetric TENS machines are slightly different to your everyday TENS machine because they also have a ‘boost’ button which can be pressed during a contraction to deliver a higher output. 

What are the advantages of TENS in labour?

  • It’s easy to use
  • You get to control it
  • It’s portable and non-invasive
  • It’s safe for you and baby and won’t interfere with your labour
  • There are no lasting side effects
  • You can keep moving around while using it
  • You can use it for as long as you want to and take it off if you want or need to.

How does TENS help?

We don’t exactly know how TENS helps in labour, but we think it’s one or a combination of:

  • The electrical pulses preventing pain signals from reaching your brain (i.e gate control theory)
  • The electrical pulses stimulating your body to release endorphins (your own natural pain-relieving hormones)
  • By reducing your anxiety and increasing your sense of control over your labour contractions
  • By simply offering a distraction

The current evidence we have on TENS (Dowswell et al. (2011) Cochrane Review and Meta-Analysis) suggest its use doesn’t lead to a significant reduction in pain. Despite this, a large number of women studied said they would use it again in future labours. This might suggest that one of it’s biggest advantages is the sense of control and distraction it provides.

How do you use TENS in labour?

Image from www.which.co.uk
Image from www.which.co.uk

It is recommended that you put the machine on at the first sign of labour by placing the electrodes on your lower back. You can then slowly increase the intensity until it produces a comfortable buzzing sensation, and continue increasing it as your contractions intensify. The boost button can be used at the peak of the contraction. The machine can be left on for as long as you like, but needs to be taken off if you want to get in water (shower/pool/bath) or if bub needs to be monitored electronically. 

Fiona Rogers from www.pelvicfloorexercise.com.au has put together a great video of how to put a TENS machine on here: https://www.pelvicfloorexercise.com.au/resources/videos-instructional-videos/how-use-neurotrac-obstetric-tens 

Where can I get a TENS machine?

You can either buy or hire an obstetric TENS machine from GLOW Physio! 

Get in touch if you’d like to find out more!