How a TENS Machine works in Labour

How a TENS Machine works in Labour

Planning for giving birth is a physical, mental and emotional journey. Considering your health, the health of your baby and managing the logistics and timing is one thing, managing pain is another. This is where Labour TENS comes in. To understand how a TENS machine works in labour let’s look at what a TENS machine is, how that helps during labour and what device options you have based on your birth and post partum recovery.


What is a TENS machine?

TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and provides a drug-free kind of pain relief. This can be used for all sorts of pain and is often used by women in early labour.

A TENS machine sends small, safe pulses of electrical current via leads to electrode pads which are held your skin and held in place by a firm gel. The pulses pass through your skin and into your muscles and tissues. This gives you a gentle tingling or buzzing sensation. The intensity of pulses can be increased or lowered based on the pain being experienced.


Why does a TENS machine reduce pain?

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.


When should I use a TENS machine?

You can use TENS from the very beginning of your labour. You could start using it when you’re getting regular contractions or backache. TENS is most likely to be effective in early labour though you may still need other forms of pain relief as your labour gets stronger.

Your midwife will not recommend starting to use a TENS machine if you’re already in established labour. However, if you started using TENS earlier and want to carry on using it, that’s is generally OK. You may need to take off the TENS pads if your baby’s heart has to be monitored electronically, because the pads could affect the signals to the monitoring machine.


How do I use a TENS machine while in labour?

The following steps are a guide to using a TENS machine during labour:

  • Check the machine is turned off before placing the pads on your back. It’s best to have another person such as your birth partner place the pads on your back for you.
  • Place two of the electrode pads on either side of your spine, with the tops of the pads at about bra-strap level.
  • Place the other two lower down, at about the level of the dimples on your lower back, just above your bottom.
  • Switch the machine on, starting with the controls at the lowest setting.
  • Turn them up gradually as your contractions get stronger, or when the pain in your back gets worse.
  • Use the boost button at the peak of each contraction. The boost function results in more intense, wave-like tingling or buzzing sensations.
  • Remember to turn off the boost button again when the contraction has ended. This is so you feel the benefit of the boost next time you have a contraction.
  • Keep mobile. Moving around during labour helps you to feel in control and will make TENS more effective.
  • Don’t give up straight away if you think TENS isn’t doing anything. You may need to keep using it for at least an hour before it starts to work for you.
  • If the pads start to lose their stickiness, rub a few drops of water into the gel side of the pads before putting them back on. The more firmly the pads are stuck on, the better they’ll work.
  • If you don’t think the pads are helping you after a while, take them off. You are in control of your labour and what is working for you. All other forms of pain relief, both medical and non-medical, are still open to you.


When shouldn’t I use a TENS Machine?

Never use a TENS machine under the following circumstances, without talking to a midwife or doctor first:

  • Before you go into labour.
  • When you’re in a shower, bath, or birth pool.
  • If you have broken skin or a healing scar where you want to place the pads.
  • If you have a cardiac pacemaker or a heart rhythm problem.
  • If you have pain that you don’t think is labour pain. See your doctor or midwife if this is the case.


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 for a home birth.
  • It's portable and non-invasive.
  • You control it.
  • It's easy to use.


What are the disadvantages of a TENS machine?

  • You probably won’t be able to put the pads in place without help.
  • You may find it only gives you relief in the early stages of labour.
  • You‘ll probably need to pay to hire or buy a TENS machine, as not all hospitals have them.
  • TENS can’t be used in water, though you can still use it before you get in a bath or birth pool.
  • If you want your birth partner to massage your back, they will have to work around the pads.


Take control of your Labour Pain

Having a TENS machine on hand during your labour gives you choices and control during your labour. Consider putting a Labour TENS device in your pre-birthing kit.