Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting with other doulas for an amazing workshop hosted by an incredible woman, Penny Bussell Stansfield. The topic: using the TENS unit in labor. Ever heard of a TENS before? I hadn’t either until recently. So let me share with you what it is, what it feels like, and why it may help you in labor.
What is a TENS?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. What that means is that mild electrical impulses are transmitted from a handheld device to stimulation pads attached to the mother’s back. The impulses, through the pads, stimulate her nerve fibers. The device can be held by the mother so she can be in control of the power, intensity, and setting as she goes in and out of contractions. The unit itself is pretty small. The handheld device is smaller than a Wii remote and each pad is about 2” x 3” big. The lead wires that go from the pads to the device are about 3 feet long.
What does it feel like?
Jessica Koester and Dorothy Haines, two doulas from New Jersey describe it as a “shower massager without water,” which is a perfect description! The TENS feels like a pleasant vibration sensation on your back. As you up the levels, the vibration increases. You can read more in Jessica’s and Dorothy’s blogpost here: http://yourbestbirth.blogspot.com/2010/01/tens-anyone.html?m=1
Why may it help in labor?
In 1965, the Gate Control Theory was proposed by Ronald Melzack, a psychologist, and Patrick Wall, a neuroscientist. “The Gate Control Theory of Pain holds that the perception of physical pain is modulated by interaction between different neurons, both pain transmitting and non-pain-transmitting. Activation of nonnociceptive [non-pain-transmitting] fibers can interfere with signals from pain (nociceptive) fibers at the level of the dorsal horn in the spinal column, thereby inhibiting perception of pain. This is because activation of nonnociceptive fibers (through rubbing the area or through TENS) inhibits the firing of nociceptive fibers, which carry pain signals. Thus the brain can control the degree of pain that is perceived, based on which pain stimuli are to be ignored. In other words, the brain controls the perception of pain quite directly. This understanding led Melzack to assert that pain is ‘in the brain’. Pain awareness can be reduced by increasing innocuous stimuli, such as the tingling sensation from the TENS unit.” (Penny Bussell, www.pennydoula.com) Basically this theory states that if non-pain-transmitting neurons, which travel faster to the brain, are stimulated, they can override the pain-transmitting signals that travel more slowly, in essence, “closing the gate” to the brain.
With that in mind, using a TENS unit in labor can help 2 things: 1) when used on a low frequency, the tickling sensation stimulates the production of endorphins which are the body’s natural pain relieving hormones; and 2) when used on a high frequency, the non-pain-transmitting neurons are stimulated and override the pain-transmitting neurons (thus “closing the gate” on those pain messages).
The advantages to using a TENS unit in labor include:
However, there are some things to keep in mind when considering using a TENS:
How do I use a TENS?
Each TENS comes with instructions but here are the basic steps:
That’s it! It’s really quite simple! I’m so excited to be able to offer this tool to my clients in labor. If you have any questions, shoot me an email!
Birth Boot Camp Certified Doula (BBCD)