Many women find a TENS unit during labor to calm and take the sharpness out of their contractions, as well as to be a good distraction from them.
How does it work? The message your brain receives during a contraction is pain. However, using the” Gate Theory”, if you are able to confuse the message being sent, by stimulating the surrounding nerve endings running up along the spine with tingling sensation from the electrical pulses of the TENS unit; it can diffuse the pain signals that your brain in creating, helping to make labor more bearable
Another way the TENS can work is, if it is turned up to one of its highest levels. The discomfort created, increases the body’s own pain relieving hormones, which can contribute to some relief of the intensity of the contractions, otherwise felt.
I started using a TENS in my doula work a year ago. Since using it, it has completely changed the way my clients have been able to handle the discomfort of their labors. The number of clients able to go all the way through their labors without an epidural has increased. Many have been able to go longer and progress further into their labors, before getting one; which decreases the likelihood of labor slowing from epidural.
One mother of four, (having had all her children without the use of pain medication) was able to use it during her fourth labor and birth. She explained to me that it doesn’t completely take away the pain; but you are well into a contraction before noticing it come on. The peak of the contraction is dulled or not as sharp; and then it kind of just fizzles out.
I had another mother feel like her back was breaking during an induction. She was still in very early labor, when she called me to come to her. After about 45 minutes of having the TENS unit placed, she wasn’t able to feel her contractions at all anymore until well into the active phase of labor.
Most recent research shows that a TENS can decrease pain levels during labor and increase maternal satisfaction around birth. There do not currently appear to be any negative side effects of using TENS during labor. Ask your birth attendant if they carry one in their birth tool kit.
*This is a summary of: Positively Birthing, “Do I Really Need a TENS Machine”, written by Megan Rossiter; with added commentary by Maggie Watkins, Doula
Maggie Watkins is the mother of 2 adult children. She has 20 years experience working with pregnant and postpartum families as a private hire doula and prenatal educator. She has a passion for birth and postpartum, along with a strong belief that parents become more confident in their roles the more they are supported and encouraged, without judgement of birth choices; and through the first several days at home with their new baby.