A TENS unit is an electrical device used to alleviate pain, restore sensation, and assist recovery from injury, illness or accident.
The TENS unit was once the exclusive domain of the clinic or hospital. Today, however, compact, affordable versions of these therapeutic devices are widely available for home use.
If you have nagging pains that are interfering with your quality of life, a TENS unit can help. To assist you in making a smart choice, we examined dozens of the most popular units and determined that the following are the best TENS units of 2021.
1. iReliev TENS Unit
iReliv provides a powerful and compact TENS unit that sets the bar high by providing 25 intensity modes delivered through four different sized pads. It’s well-built and reliable, and the quick start guide is actually useful. Our #1 choice, by far.
What we like: We like the simplicity of the device, and the fact that it offers 25 intensity levels. The different size electrodes (pads) are also a nice touch, and the ability to set the timer for 5 – 60 minutes provides a lot of treatment flexibility.
Flaws: It’s comparatively light on the preprogrammed modes with just 8. But it compensates somewhat with the extra intensity adjustments.
2. Nursal TENS Unit
The Nursal TENS Unit also offers an electronic muscle stimulation component (EMS). But we were sold on the ability of the device to deliver comprehensive pain relief. If you also want to indulge in some muscle stimulation, you can do that too.
What we like: Customers will appreciate the 20 intensity levels. The auto shut off feature is a big plus too. The battery recharges reasonably fast. And it’s good that they provide replacement pads.
Flaws: The screen is a bit crowded and not the easiest to read. It would also be nice if there were more than four pads.
3. TechCare Mini Massager TENS Unit
What we like about the TechCare Mini Massager is not the cramped LCD screen, but the overall simplicity and the different size electrodes. They enable you to bring relief to hard to reach places, such as certain parts of the hands or feet.
What we like: We like that it’s FDA approved and has 20 intensity levels. We love the 10 pre-programmed modes. It’s also nice to have different sized electrodes. And the unit is attractively priced.
Flaws: The adhesive on the pads seems a bit hit-or-miss. Also, the screen may not be that easy for some older folks to read.
4. MTC TENS Unit and Muscle Stimulator
The MTC TENS unit is a high-quality, versatile, and effective device that’s perfect for taking on the road. There are lots of preset programs and intensity settings. And, although the icons take some getting used to, the screen is large and user friendly.
What we like: The pads are dependable and comfortable. The LCD display is not perfect but better than most. We like how easy it is to set the timer, and that battery life is prominently displayed. It’s also pretty easy to set intensity on the individual pads.
Flaws: The screen times out fast to save the battery. The ‘lock’ button could also use a rethinking because it’s too easy to unlock.
5. ChoiceMed OTC TENS Unit
If you’re on a fixed income but need some help dealing with nagging aches and pains, the ChoiceMed TENS Unit is a viable option. It’s a simple unit that’s reasonably priced and reliable. You won’t get bells and whistles, only pain relief.
What we like: We like the 10 intensity levels and the eight presets. We appreciate that the two output channels can be programmed separately. The pads are also comfortable and, for the most part, stay where you put them.
Flaws: The remote is big and clunky. At the same time, the words on the screen are small and hard to read.
6. Santamedical Electronic TENS Unit
Someone at Santamedical has been listening to the people who are tired of tiny LCD readouts. Their response is to provide dedicated buttons for each of their auto modes. That saves a lot of hassle for those with less than perfect vision.
What we like: The fact that the different modes have their own buttons is a big plus. We also appreciate that they include batteries with the unit. And that there are three massage modes.
Flaws: The screen is frustratingly small. The presence of two ‘off’ buttons can be a head-scratcher. Until you realize there’s one for each channel.
7. NeuMedics TENS Unit Muscle Stimulator
NeuMedics markets their TENS unit as being perfect for relieving the pain of carpal tunnel syndrome. And it will certainly do that. But it can also be used on virtually any other part of the body where you’re experiencing pain or discomfort.
What we like: We like the variety of therapeutic modes. The 20 hours of use on a full battery charge is also a plus. The timer is easy to adjust, and a limited lifetime warranty is always nice to see on this type of device.
Flaws: As is the case with similar designs, the screen can be a challenge to read. The user’s manual could also use a rewrite.
8. AUVON Dual Channel TENS Unit
The Auvon TENS Unit is a dependable, lightweight unit that features both small and large electrode pads and dual-channel programmability. It’s one of the better-looking units on the market, and the pads are some of the longest-lasting.
What we like: We appreciate that the pads last much longer on average than those from most other manufacturers. We also appreciate the 20 different modes. And the ability to program channels A and B for different modes and intensities.
Flaws: The instruction manual with its tiny lettering was not made with seniors in mind. Trying to get everything into the stuff sack can also be a challenge.
9. HealthmateForever YK15AB
Tiny LCD screens undermine some outstanding TENS units. Not the HealthmateForever YK15AB, however. It offers push-button control that’s clear and easy to understand. It also provides eight pads so you can treat multiple locations at once.
What we like: 20 intensity levels gives you a lot of therapeutic choices. The 15 modes and eight total pads are good things too. The full-size controller with buttons is also a step up from hard-to-read LCD screens.
Flaws: Uses disposable batteries. And while there are eight pads, there are four channels. So each channel controls two pads.
10. TENS 7000 2nd Edition Digital TENS Unit
The TENS 7000 2nd Edition features eight intensity levels and five preset modes and is easy to pack away for travel in its durable carrying case. With its outstanding reliability, easy portability, and customer-friendly price, it’s an all-around great value.
What we like: The four electrodes are large and comfortable and stay where you put them. We appreciate the five different therapeutic modes. The unit is easy to operate, while the durable carrying case beats the stuff sack you get with most TENS units.
Flaws: You have to be sure your skin is clean and dry before applying the pads. And the control knobs are awkwardly positioned.
Who Needs a TENS Unit?
A TENS unit can be helpful to anyone dealing with muscular aches and pains, including athletes, construction workers, nurses who are on their feet all day, and more. In addition, those suffering from arthritis will find a TENS unit can help to alleviate the pain and stiffness that comes with that debilitating condition. People with plantar fasciitis can also benefit, as can women suffering from menstrual cramps and many more individuals young and old.
A TENS unit can also be an outstanding complement to other forms of therapy. For example, you can use it to reduce the pain of a hamstring tear while you undergo other treatments to repair the muscle and restore strength to the affected leg. The bottom line is that if you suffer from pain and you do not have a pacemaker or other electrical device implanted on your person, a TENS unit will probably be helpful.
How We Ranked
Separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to this type of device is first and foremost about performance. That is, does it provide the pain relief it claims to? If not, then it doesn’t matter how many pads or presets or anything else it offers. Any unit that came up short in the performance category simply didn’t make our list.
We then considered other things, including battery life, because you don’t want the unit dying on you in the middle of a session. We also looked at the display screen. That turned out to be the one area where almost all TENS units could use some help. And so, because very few units provided large, clear displays, we had to settle for the best of what was available.
We also wanted to see more than just one or two electrodes. All the units that made our final cut had to offer a generous number of intensity levels too. That is important because the more intensity levels, the more chances the user has of finding one that works for them.
Finally, we considered whether the electrodes stayed in place once you turned the unit on and how quickly those pads wore out. After all, an affordable TENS unit isn’t so affordable if you have to spend hundreds of dollars a year on replacement pads.
A TENS unit can relieve pain. People use TENS units for a number of reasons, as we’ll see. But one of the most common is to obtain pain relief from various maladies. A TENS unit works by creating a tingling sensation that essentially overwhelms the nerve that had been sending pain signals to your brain. As a result, those signals are blocked, and you get a break from whatever pain was bothering you. The amount of stimulation it provides can be adjusted by the user to find their personal sweet spot.
A TENS unit is affordable. Older folks on a fixed budget are sometimes unable to afford expensive healthcare treatments (1). They need affordable options that are not just inexpensive but also effective. The one time cost associated with buying a TENS unit is typically less than $100 (sometimes considerably less). During its useful lifespan it could wind up providing many, many times that amount in equivalent treatment value.
A TENS unit offers drug-free pain relief. Addiction to painkillers is a very real and growing problem (2). As such, there’s never been a better time for the drug-free pain relief you’ll get from your TENS unit. Not only will you avoid the specter of addiction you’ll also save a bundle of money because, if you haven’t checked lately, the cost of prescription drugs has gone through the roof (3).
A TENS unit is easy enough anyone can use it. One of the many great things about a TENS unit is that practically anyone can use it effectively. They come with a variety of pre-programmed therapeutic functions and a range of intensity levels you can easily adjust to suit your needs and temperament. In most cases, you’ll find it’s as simple as attaching the pads and turning the unit on.
A TENS unit means you don’t have to travel for therapy. If you need treatment for aching muscles, minor injuries, arthritis pain, or other conditions, you won’t have to travel to the massage therapist or doctor’s office to receive it if you have a TENS unit. The TENS unit allows you to obtain relief and to continue treatment in the privacy and safety of your own home on your own schedule. You’ll save time, money, and a boatload of inconvenience.
A TENS unit can help relieve sciatica. Sciatica (4) occurs when the sciatic nerve that runs from your lower back down your leg becomes irritated. Sometimes it’s the result of a disc problem. But injury, illness, or just wear and tear can also be the cause. A TENS unit can provide much-needed relief from the pain of sciatica.
A TENS unit can help relieve the pain of plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia runs from your toes to your heel along the bottom of your foot. Bad shoes, poor running form, obesity, and other conditions can result in the plantar fascia becoming inflamed. A condition known as plantar fasciitis (5). That can result in intense pain in the heel. Regular use of the TENS unit can alleviate the pain and discomfort associated with plantar fasciitis.
A TENS unit can help reduce inflammation. Inflammation (6) is the body’s natural response to injury or illness. However, it can also be the source of a lot of aches and pains. And chronic inflammation can lead to a host of secondary conditions. Although you’ll likely need to address the underlying cause by different means, a TENS unit can be effective in helping reduce some of the effects of inflammation.
A TENS unit can treat peripheral neuropathy. Peripheral neuropathy (7) is not typically a painful condition (though in some cases it can be). More often, it is typified by numbness or a lack of feeling in the extremities. There are too many potential causes of peripheral neuropathy to list here. But the good news is that it can sometimes be effectively treated with a TENS unit.
A TENS unit can relieve the pain and stiffness of arthritis. One of the most common uses for a TENS unit is to provide relief from the pain and stiffness associated with osteoarthritis (8) and rheumatoid arthritis (9). This is not to say that it can cure arthritis. It can’t. What it can do is provide some much needed pain relief.
A TENS unit can help relieve menstrual cramps. Some women suffer dearly from menstrual cramps (10). And the search for relief can sometimes seem fruitless. Fortunately, research has demonstrated that TENS therapy can be effective in treating menstrual cramps (11). In fact many women participating in the research characterized the relief they got from TENS as being either good or excellent.
A TENS unit provides treatment flexibility. Most of the better TENS units provide a variety of intensity levels and numerous pre-programmed treatments. This plethora of treatment options means you have an excellent chance of finding a treatment mode that will work for you. In all likelihood, you’ll find several. As a result, you’ll have a great deal of control over your own treatment.
A TENS unit produces endorphins. Endorphins (12) are typically released by the brain during strenuous exercise, sex and even by eating chocolate. They act as natural painkillers and often create a sense of euphoria as well. Treatment with a TENS unit can produce endorphins. That is one reason they do such a good job alleviating pain.
A TENS unit can help with carpal tunnel syndrome. Carpal tunnel syndrome (13) is the result of excessive stress and strain on the tendons of the wrist. It can be very painful and obtaining relief isn’t always possible via standard methods like NSAIDs (14). Many people, however, report that treatment with a TENS unit that involves placing a pad on both the top and bottom of the wrist can provide effective relief.
A TENS unit does not produce side effects. Another of the many great things about a TENS unit is that it’s side effect free. This is one reason so many health professionals recommend TENS treatment over drug-based approaches to pain relief. Of course being side effect free means using the device only as directed.
A TENS unit may actually bring nerves back to life. There is compelling evidence to suggest that treatment with a TENS unit can reactivate dormant nerves. The process is called ‘reinnervation’ (15). For people who have suffered nerve damage due to injury or illness, this is an exciting prospect. It’s also now thought that regular TENS treatment may stop a nerve from sending pain signals to the brain altogether.
A TENS unit provides non-invasive treatment. Treatment with a TENS unit is not only drug-free treatment; it’s also completely non-invasive. Simply attach the pads (electrodes) to or near the affected area and turn the machine on to your preferred settings. When you finish with one area, simply move the electrodes to the next.
A TENS unit is both portable and discreet. Most TENS units can fit in the palm of your hand. And most come with some sort of carrying case or sack. That’s good because it allows you to take the unit with you when you go on vacation or travel to see family and friends. Many people worry that the unit won’t be allowed on an airplane. But according to the TSA you can carry a TENS unit in any checked or carry-on bag (16).
Q: What is a TENS unit?
A: A TENS unit is an electrical device that stimulates the nerves to provide relief from various types of pain. TENS stands for ‘Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation’, which is a type of physical therapy. The first wearable TENS machine was patented in 1974 (17). For many years this type of therapy was only available in a small number of clinics and hospitals. Today, however, it has been made available to the general public in the form of the compact TENS device, like those on the above list.
Q: Can you use a TENS unit every day?
A: TENS units are widely believed to be both beneficial and completely safe, which is why you can buy them without a prescription. So, in theory, you probably could use your TENS unit every day. Now, whether that’s actually a good idea or not is a subject of debate. It’s possible that leaving the electrodes in one spot for too long could burn the skin. Also, some people may develop a rash as a result of having the pads affixed to their skin for too long.
Q: Does TENS therapy hurt?
A: Reports of pain resulting from the use of a TENS unit are extremely rare. Many people, however, do report a tingling sensation at the point of contact with the skin. But this rarely spills over into actual pain. As we mentioned, some people may develop a rash or mild sunburn-like burn. It is also possible a person may have an allergic reaction to the material used to make the electrode pad.
Q: Can anyone use a TENS unit?
A: TENS units are considered safe for use by otherwise healthy adults who suffer from various types of pain. That said, you should not use this device if you have a pacemaker or insulin pump implanted in your body. In addition, you should not use the device on children as their nervous systems are still in the early stages of development.
Q: Are there any side effects to using a TENS unit?
A: The most common side effect from the use of this type of device is a mild tingling sensation in the treatment area. Most people are not bothered by this. If you feel the tingling has gone beyond what you consider comfortable, you should discontinue use of the device and discuss the matter with your doctor.
Q: Does a TENS unit stimulate muscle growth?
A: There is a common misconception that this type of device will stimulate muscles to contract and thereby promote muscle growth. But that is not what a TENS unit is designed to do. If that is what you are after you’ll want to look into an Electric Muscle Stimulator or EMS (18).
Q: Are TENS units effective or is it all in my head?
A: If your head perceives a reduced amount of pain, then the TENS unit is effective. Pain, after all is nothing but a signal sent from a nerve to the brain alerting you that something is wrong (19). Anything that can reduce those pain signals in your brain can be said to provide effective pain relief. So TENS units are effective, and yes, it’s all in your head because that’s where the pain is perceived or relieved.
Q: Can you be electrocuted by a TENS unit?
A: The amount of electricity that is generated by a TENS unit is comparatively tiny. Even in the unlikely event a unit seriously malfunctioned, the worst a person would experience would be a very mild shock like you get from static electricity in the winter. So don’t worry. Your TENS unit is not going to electrocute you.
Q: Can I turn the TENS unit on and go to sleep?
A: This might seem like a good idea to help you get and stay asleep. But it is not recommended for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is never a good idea to have an electrical device running in the bed while you’re asleep. If there is a short circuit it could result in a potentially devastating fire (20). Second, if you turn while sleeping and the electrode winds up pressed against your skin for a long time it could cause a burn.
Q: How much does a TENS unit cost?
A: Like any electronic device on the market today, the price for a TENS unit will vary considerably from model to model. Some might be available for as low as $20. While others may run as much as $200 or more. Truth be told, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $100 to get a TENS machine that’s reliable and safe and will last for years.
Q: What’s the difference between TENS and EMS?
A: A TENS unit provides mild pulses of electricity designed to stimulate nerves and override pain signals to the brain. An EMS (21) on the other hand is designed to aid in the rehabilitation of injured muscles. The EMS sends a current through the muscle and stimulates contraction. It is a low-impact way of ‘working out’ the muscle to re-injury. EMS units are also increasingly used by bodybuilders to produce larger muscles.
Q: Is there anywhere I shouldn’t apply TENS pads?
A: A TENS pad can be affixed to virtually any part of the body with a few notable exceptions. You should never attach a TENS unit over your heart or anywhere on your head. Also, don’t ever affix a TENS pad to an open cut, an area of scar tissue, directly against the spinal cord, near or on the genitals or directly against bone.
Q: What is the best way to apply TENS pads?
A: It is best to apply the TENS pads to skin that has been thoroughly cleaned and dried. Failing to do so could result in the pad not adhering to the skin as intended. If you take care to always apply the TENS pads properly, they should be good for perhaps hundreds of applications. However, applying them to sweaty, wet, or unwashed skin could undermine the adhesive and drastically shorten the life of the pads.
Q: How long should I use the TENS unit?
A: If you are talking about individual sessions most health professionals recommend limiting TENS sessions to 1 hour (22). At least to begin with. If you seem to tolerate it well, you can consider gradually increasing the length of each session. If you are talking about big picture use, you can use the device as long as you feel it is providing the desired relief. If you feel the effectiveness is beginning to wane, consider taking some time off and trying again at a later date.
Q: Can pregnant women use a TENS unit?
A: There is a dearth of information on this subject. That – along with the fact that the FDA has approved these devices without issuing any specific warnings regarding pregnancy – suggests the device is indeed safe for pregnant women. However, you should still discuss the matter with your doctor before going ahead.
Q: What’s the best way to care for a TENS unit?
A: Each TENS unit will come with detailed care instructions from the manufacturer. You should follow them to the letter to ensure your TENS unit remains safe and effective for as long as possible. As a general rule, however, you should remove the wire leads from the pad after every use. Just make sure to turn the unit off before removing the pads and the wire leads. And store them in the manner spelled out in the instruction manual.
Q: Can I use a commercial cleaner on my TENS unit?
A: Cleaning a TENS unit usually involves wiping down the components with a soft damp cloth. Avoid using commercial cleaners or submerging the device or its components in water. And always be careful not to fold the lead wires.
A TENS unit can bring relief from most types of pain and will save you time, money, and trips to the doctor or physical therapist. It’s effectiveness and convenience is matched only by its affordability and broad applicability.
Whether you’re battling the pain of arthritis or plantar fasciitis, recovering from an injury, suffering from debilitating menstrual cramps, or just need some relief for your tired aching muscles, the TENS machine can help.
All the TENS units on our list have undergone rigorous examination. They are reliable devices that can improve your overall quality of life. Use the above information to help you determine which one is right for you.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended TENS unit, click here.