TENS for Labor

tens momI run across a lot of articles talking about using TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) for labor, but had never seen or heard of it being used in my area.  Many of the people who wrote about their experience with TENS were in the UK, where it
seems to be more commonplace – as is Nitrous for labor.

The gate theory of pain management  says that you can block the perception of pain by stimulating receptors in another fashion – causing a sort of neural traffic jam.  This is a lesson that most birth doulas learn very quickly as we support laboring moms with massage, counter pressure, cool cloths,  heat packs, running water and even somewhat more surprising techniques like hair pulling and comb squeezing. All of these techniques attempt to produce some of the sensory overload, or distraction if you will, that closes that neural gate in the spinal chord and changes mom’s perception of labor pain.

The TENS unit is a great way to do the same thing, plus: bonus – it causes the body to release endorphins too! – another pain coping mechanism.  After speaking with a friend that used one for chronic back pain after an accident, I decided to learn more.

I spoke with my chiropractor about TENS and he was not a fan. He reminded me that electricity is what runs our whole body from our heartbeat to our brain to our reflexes. He believes it best not to interfere with the normal operation of this system.  But as there are very few side effects reported; most of which are due to irritation of the skin from the pad adhesive, I felt it was still a better option than pharmaceuticals for birth, and wanted it to be an option for interested clients.

DONA International, my doula certifying agency, offers a certification program for TENS use in laboring moms.  I was lucky enough to attend the workshop and earn my certification.

lady-tens-from-babycare-tens--suppresses-labour-pain_1227732888_largeThe unit is about the size of a deck of cards and runs on a 9 volt battery.   Wires run from the unit to pads that are applied to the skin.  There are 4 pads; two are positive and two are negative. The current will obviously run from the positive to the negative.  You apply the pads in such a way that the current will run through the area of discomfort. This is usually in an X configuration across the lower back.   So, I hooked myself up to try it out.

I loved it! It is a tingly, hard to explain feeling – not unpleasant.  It is a little surprising at first, but the longer you leave it on the more you can feel your muscles relaxing. As a rider who’s lower back is not what it used to be I immediately realized the benefits. Nice for my backaches, but will it really help a laboring mom?  I bought a few sets of extra pads (while the pads can be reused – or reapplied several times,  a new set is required for each mom.) and tucked it in my doula bag.  I let my clients know that it was available if they were interested.  I also checked with the local hospitals that I work at and was surprised to find that most already had standing orders for TENS and that some would even let you use a unit from their rehab department if you didn’t have your own. This is certainly not something that is routinely mentioned in the hospital tour, and the nurses I spoke with had not ever seen it used.

Here is the testimony of one of my first clients to use the TENS during labor…

“I was able to achieve a NUCB (natural unmedicated child birth) thanks to my doula’s TENS unit! During my labor I used the tub to help with the pain but it slowed down my contractions significantly. When I got out of the tub it was excruciating again and I told my support team that I needed something. They suggested sterile water injections or TENS and I decided on TENS after the nurse told me the injections burn pretty bad going in.  I felt immediate relief.  I don’t consider myself as having a high pain tolerance but I loved the TENS unit turned up quite a bit! It is hard to describe what it feels like. I would say it is a pulsating buzz feeling that hurts really good. It’s the type of hurt you get with a good deep massage. Where you say “ow” and are asked if it is too much and you say no that it is perfect. That is the best description I can think of. I didn’t notice the pads at all or the cords. I actually forgot the pads were on until after delivery was over and my doula said I needed to take them off.  I still felt the contractions, and they still hurt, but I never asked for anything else for pain once I had the TENS. It made labor manageable by distracting my body from the pain of the contractions. I used TENS from 8cm until I was crowning and I think it is a wonderful tool for labor!”


Needless to say I am very impressed with the success of the TENS unit and plan to educate all of my future clients on this option for labor. While most users report  TENS to be most effective in early labor, my clients have had a very different experience.  They often successfully use it only after they no longer felt they could cope on their own. I like having “one more thing” to try when clients feel they need more support.

This article is intended for informational purposes only. ALWAYS consult with a medical professional before taking any action that may affect the health of you or your baby.

To learn more about TENS read this:  http://midwifeinfo.com/articles/tens-transcutaneous-electrical-nerve-stimulation

And watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SmfxlTXF73w