TENS for Childbirth Pain?

What is TENS? Can I use it while I’m in labor?
profile picture of William Camann, MD
ByWilliam Camann, MD
Anesthesiologist
Updated
Mar 2017
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TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A TENS unit is a small, portable device that delivers mild bursts of low-voltage electricity through the skin to the nerves; the electricity may interrupt the flow of pain signals through the nerves, providing pain relief.

Because TENS is non-invasive and non-systemic (meaning that it doesn’t affect the entire body), it seems like a great choice for labor, especially for women who don’t want to use medication. And studies suggest that TENS is safe for both mom and baby, too.

But there’s no guarantee it will work for you. Most research studies show minimal to no labor pain relief with TENS. Every woman is different, though. “For some women, TENS seems to work reasonable well,” says William Camann, MD, director of obstetric anesthesia at Brigham & Women’s Hospital and co-author of_ Easy Labor, Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth_. “Many of the differences in relief with TENS may be related to individual pain tolerances or expectations, or personal motivation to try non-drug methods of pain relief.”

In other words, if TENS is available and you’re interested in trying it, go for it. Just keep your expectations in check. “You shouldn’t go into labor with the expectation that TENS will relieve all labor pain,” says Camann. “For most women, it won’t help with the pain, but individual experiences do differ.”

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