TENS: Alternative pain relief during labour


Most expectant mothers want to keep the use of drugs to a minimum during their birthing. Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS) is one safe, effective, non-invasive way to do this.

The use of TENS provides a level of pain relief that carries many women through to the final stages of birth. Not many women understand how it works and that it is readily available in South Africa.

What is TENS?

TENS is a method of pain relief involving the use of small electrode pads placed on the lower back, which deliver a very mild electrical stimulus. The intensity of the stimulation is set by the mother and is continuously variable. This stimulation prickles but is painless. Its effect is to reduce pain to a manageable level.

Read: How do I know I'm in labour?

The self-adhesive pads are placed on your back and these are connected to the TENS unit by a pair of lead wires. A low-voltage electric current is passed across these pads and this stimulates your body to produce its own natural pain relieving substances (called endorphins) and to reduce – or even block altogether – the pain messages reaching your brain. Endorphins, the natural painkillers that the body produces, are many times stronger than morphine.

As labour progresses the intensity of the electrical stimulation is increased to cope with the increased intensity of contractions. With TENS you are in complete control at all times.

How does it work?

TENS is thought to work in 2 ways. Electrical stimulation at a rate of 2 Hertz (pulses) a second is thought to stimulate the release of endorphins (your body’s own pain-killing hormones), traces of which have been found in the fluid that bathes the spinal cord.

TENS will quickly raise the body’s endorphin levels if you start using it early in labour, before the contractions become really intense.

During first stage the impulses from the TENS machine travel along the fast-conducting A-fibres to the brain, arriving there ahead of the pain impulses from your contracting uterus that travel along the slow conducting C-fibres. In simple terms, this means that the slower pain signal on its way up to the brain encounters an “engaged” tone set up by the faster traveling TENS and therefore cannot get through.

Also read: Is your pelvis big enough for labour?

Do I need to practise with it?

It is a good idea to try out the TENS machine before labour, so that you can get used to using it and also to the sensation it produces. It is recommended that you start practicing with the TENS from about 37 weeks so that your body can already start building the levels of endorphins and so that once labour starts your endorphins are primed to respond readily to the stimulus.

There are many advantages to using TENS:

  • It’s natural and its sole use can lead to a drug-free labour.
  • It’s non-invasive.
  • It’s completely safe and has no adverse side-effects on the mother or her baby.
  • It’s easy to use and the mother has it entirely under her control throughout labour.
  • TENS does not make you drowsy or cause you to lose consciousness and so a TENS-birth should result in a more pleasant and satisfying experience.
  • It’s portable (it is small, self-contained and battery-powered) so you can stay mobile.
  • It can be used at home (for a home birth) or before going to hospital.
  • TENS can be used in conjunction with analgesics such as pethidine or entonox, as well as alternative pain remedies like aromatherapy and acupressure.
  • It can be bought or hired.

Must read: 100 amazing facts about pregnancy

Are there any disadvantages?

There are some disadvantages too. A TENS machine may interfere with electronic monitoring and may need to be removed. Some women find it ineffective, and it cannot be used for water birth.

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