Birth, Pregnancy

Using a TENS Unit During Pregnancy and Childbirth

Pregnancy and childbirth are usually described as something truly beautiful. The changes associated with a woman’s body are often looked upon as nothing short of miraculous. Although each pregnancy for a woman is individual and unique, there is one thing that is often shared among women during pregnancy and childbirth–pain.

General body aches during pregnancy are a common issue for women. This pain and discomfort can be attributed to the immense physical changes occurring in the body and the constant changing hormone levels. As the baby develops and grows, strain is put on the mother’s bones and ligaments often causing pain in the joints and back.

During labor, of course, there is pain associated with multiple parts of the woman’s body. Many women choose to deliver their baby without medication or the use of an epidural. Managing the pain associated with pregnancy, labor, and delivery can be managed through a variety of low-risk and low-intervention methods, including the use of a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit.

A TENS unit works by sending multiple electronic pulses through the body through small pads that adhere to the skin. The electric pulses stimulate the tissues around the spinal cord and brain causing the body to release natural pain relievers. Essentially, the electronic stimulation temporarily inhibits the brain’s ability to recognize pain signals. The pads can be moved around on the body to stimulate specific areas of pain or discomfort.


Low-Intervention Pain Management

“A TENS unit is a great option for labor pains when other methods haven’t been helpful, or to avoid pain medications,” says Jennifer Wakefield, DONA International Certified and trained birth doula of My Doula Heart. “It works by sending mild electrical impulses to the nerves below the skin to produce endorphins.” The TENS unit can be used from mild pain relief to alleviating pain during the most intense labor contractions.

While a basic TENS unit can be purchased over-the-counter, the best option for use during labor, is a unit designed to max out at a lower frequency. “The TENS unit I provide to my clients also has a burst button that delivers continuous impulses for use during a contraction.” The constant stimulation of the nerves, essentially reduces the ability of the nervous system to send pain signals to the brain, resulting in less pain during labor. 


Personalized Pain Management

One standout benefit of the TENS unit, is the woman’s ability to control her own pain management. When a woman uses a TENS unit during pregnancy and childbirth, she has direct control over the intensity, frequency, and duration of the stimulation. “The client is in complete control of the frequency and intensity of the unit,” says Wakefield. A patient can control the intensity of the electrical impulses. Essentially, a laboring woman can determine, on her own, how strong she needs the impulses in order to manage her own pain. Also, she can set the frequency which determines the number of pulses per second. Depending on her own level of pain, a laboring woman can set the frequency to low or high to meet her own individual needs.


Cautions Associated with the TENS Unit

According to Wakefield, this is a low-risk and low-intervention option for most pregnant and laboring mothers. However, while there are no known risks associated with the use of a TENS unit for mother and baby, some women should not use a TENS device at any time.

“Anyone with a pacemaker, epilepsy, or seizure disorder should not use a TENS unit,” says Wakefield. “Additionally, it should not be used on anyone with broken skin or a rash on their back where the adhesive pads would be applied.”

Another thing to consider, is that while the use of water birth as a pain management technique has grown in popularity, a TENS unit cannot be used in or around water. Lastly, the TENS unit cannot be used around emitted gas that can produce a flame. This is specifically important for mothers who are having a home birth.


Additional Methods for Managing Natural Labor Pain

For many pregnant women, there is a preference for low-risk and low-intervention methods of pain relief, especially during labor. According to Wakefield, intense back pain is often an issue for women during labor. “In recent years, pelvic floor physical therapists attribute this pain to the muscles and ligaments of the pelvic floor,” says Wakefield. She encourages pregnant women to begin exercises prior to labor in order to help prevent this added pain during labor. “For starters, pelvic floor evaluations during the second trimester are great preparation for birth itself, no matter what type of birth is desired.”

Wakefield also suggests other low-intervention options for laboring women. “During labor, hydrotherapy in a tub or taking a shower can be helpful,” says Wakefield. “Changing positions whenever there is discomfort–if it hurts, get off of it!” she says. Finally, she says exploring different counter pressures can also aid in easing labor pains.

As for any intervention during pregnancy and labor, it is encouraged to seek advice from a medical professional. Additionally, while one method of pain management might work for one pregnancy, it may have different results for another. Therefore, it is important to gather as much information as possible and have options ready to be implemented throughout an established birth plan.