Using a labour TENS machine for pain relief

Labour TENS machines are a safe and natural way to help manage pain during childbirth.

In this article we will look at what a TENS machine is, how to use it, as well as how a labour or obstetric TENS machine is different from a regular TENS machine.

What is a TENS machine?

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A TENS machine (and
particularly an obstetric TENS machine) is a safe and effective alternative to other pain relief methods commonly used during the labour process. It is usually battery operated and can be easily held in your hand. It is drug free and non-invasive, with no known side effects to mother and/or baby. Best of all, it is self-controlled, meaning that you have direct and immediate control over your pain relief. Electrode pads which are connected to the TENS machine via chords, are attached to the skin. The TENS machine then sends gentle pulses to your sensory nerves (electrical stimulation), through these electrode pads. Stimulating your nerves in this way helps to reduce or block the pain signal that is sent to the brain during a contraction. As the TENS machine blocks these pain signals, it becomes harder for the brain to register the feeling of pain or it will choose instead to recognize the gentle pulsing sensation submitted by the TENS machine. In effect, the electrical stimulation is distracting your brain from the pain of contractions and helping to encourage the release of endorphins (the body’s natural pain killers). For example, when you hurt yourself, you often rub that area of the body. This rubbing helps distract your brain and reduce the emphasis placed on the pain felt.

How is a Labour or Obstetric TENS machine different from regular TENS machines?

While a regular TENS machine usually only has one pulse strength setting, an Obstetric TENS machine, such as the Elle TENS has an extra ‘burst’ setting, to help deliver a stronger pulse during a contraction and a lesser pulse between contractions. In this way you can control the level of stimulation the machine gives, and get an extra boost of power at the time you need it most. Obstetric TENS machines also usually have larger electrode pads.

What does using a TENS machine feel like?

The electrical stimulation felt by a TENS machine should never be painful. It should be a pleasant and comfortable buzzing or vibrating feeling.

Using a TENS machine during labour?

To benefit the most from using a TENS machine, it is recommended that you first become familiar with it before the need for using it during labour. Consider purchasing your obstetric TENS machine by your 38th week, but do not start using it until after your 37th week. Practice positioning the electrodes and using the TENS before labour begins. This is quite safe and will make using the machine much easier once labour begins. If you plan on trying the TENS prior to your 37th week, it is advised that you only do so under medical supervision. The electrodes are placed over sensitive pressure points, that could potentially stimulate the labour process.

Follow the instructions found with your TENS machine for positioning the electrodes. Have it running on the routine pulse setting, and then as you feel the beginning of a contraction, press the ‘burst’ button. As you progress through labour, you will gradually increase the output of the machine. While going through a contraction, try to make yourself focus on the sensation given by the TENS machine, rather than the contraction. While a TENS machine can be used in conjunction with other pain relief such as gas and pethidine, it will not provide any benefit should an epidural be required. If you are going to have an epidural, you can use the TENS machine in the time leading up to it, to help manage your pain in the early labour stages.

Will a Labour TENS machine eliminate all pain?

A TENS machine is a pain management tool. It will not completely eliminate pain. Rather, it helps women cope with the pain of labour. It helps you to stay in control, remain alert, and can also considerably reduce drug and other pain relief intake.

Who can’t use a TENS machine?

If you suffer from any of the following, then you SHOULD NOT use a TENS machine:

  • High risk pregnancy
  • Anticipated high risk delivery
  • Metal implanted in the area
  • Pacemaker

You will also need to remove the electrode pads and discontinue use of the TENS machine while in the bath as it cannot be used under water.

If you are unsure about using a TENS machine, we highly recommend discussing it as a pain relief option with your obstetrician or midwife.

Is a TENS machine only useful during labour?

Many people who are not pregnant, are prescribed TENS machines for pain management. Having a TENS machine at home can be beneficial for assisting with back or shoulder pain, and even menstrual pain.

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