TENS for labour and birth

What on earth is a TENS Machine?

A TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve stimulation) machine is a method of pain relief using a mild electrical current. TENS machines can be used for many different types of pain, but they are especially helpful for labour pain.

I was introduced to TENS for pain relief during my Midwifery training over a decade ago. We had a couple TENS machines in the birth suite for women to use during their labours and the effects I witnessed were amazing. Women reported that the TENS helped them tremendously during their labour and sometimes even prevented them from wanting pain relief drugs!

I have used a TENS machine during both of my labours and I truly feel that I would have not made it through without this amazing device. I have TENS available for hire so I thought I’d give you a little run down of how they work, things to note and what’s included in the hire.

What are the advantages of a TENS machine?

  • You can keep moving around while using it
  • It won’t directly interfere with your labour
  • You can use it for as long as you want to and take it off if you want or need to
  • There are no lasting side-effects
  • It’s safe for you and your baby
  • You don’t need an anaesthetist, doctor or midwife to help you use it
  • It can be used at home for homebirth or early labour
  • It’s portable and non-invasive
  • You control it
  • It’s easy to use

How they work

TENS machines work by confusing the pain signals travelling to your brain when you are in labour. There are 4x sticky electrode pads which you’ll place on your back/lower back during labour and these pads are connected to the TENS machine by 4x leads.

You’ll hold the TENS machine in your hand (it also comes with a neck strap for ease of movement) and once turned on, the TENS will give you a gentle electrical impulse through the pads, on your back. This sensation is quite mild and the strength can be adjusted as needed. As soon as you feel a contraction beginning, you’ll press the ‘boost’ button on the TENS machine and the electrical impulse will change to a much stronger buzzing sensation. It is this sensation that confuses your brain, because your brain is essentially forced to pay attention to the buzzing feeling, which means it pays a bit less attention to the pain of the contraction. Once the contraction has passed, you press the button again and the impulse returns to the gentle sensation once again.

You can do this with every single contraction for the whole of your labour, turning the strength of the impulses up as you need, as the labour becomes more intense. There are a number of factors that contribute to the pain relief offered by a TENS machine. These include:

  • Electrical pulses from a TENS machine prevent pain signals reaching the brain
  • TENS pulses release natural feel-good substances call endorphins
  • It helps you feel in control of labour and feel less anxious
  • It offers a distraction from contractions

Things to note

  • Personally I have found over the years that the earlier you put a TENS machine on, the better. I generally advise women to put it on once the contractions are strong enough that they’re making you breathe through or grimace a little bit. You’ll know when is the best time to start using the TENS.
  • TENS machines can’t be used in water (shower or bath) but you can certainly alternate between the two. I had planned on using the shower for pain relief in labour but once I was using the TENS, I couldn’t fathom taking it off! So I didn’t get in the shower once and instead used the TENS all the way until I got in the bath during transition.
  • Start out slow and turn it up as needed. I usually recommend starting on 5 or 6 – just go to what feels nice – it shouldn’t feel uncomfortable at all. The intensity can be turned up really high so don’t hesitate to turn it up if you feel it’s not quite cutting it anymore.
  • Some women try the TENS on and decide it’s not for them. This is totally fine! At least you gave it a go. Perhaps a shower, bath, massage, acupressure or mobilising is more your thing.

What’s included in the hire TENS machine hire is for approx. 6 weeks and I usually recommend having it in your possession from 36 weeks (if you are still pregnant at 42 weeks don’t stress, just let me know and you can keep it for longer). Included is the ElleTENS machine itself, as well as a set of sticky electrode pads, 2x spare AA batteries and the instructions for use.

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