Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) has not been shown in controlled studies to relieve lower back pain lasting three months or longer and should be avoided when treating such chronic back pain that is unidentifiable in cause, according to a recent medical review performed by the American Academy of Neurology.
As detailed in the journal Neurology, the systematic review found only five studies that examined chronic lower back pain relief from TENS treatments using electrodes to provide mild, electrical currents to painful areas of the back.
According to the review, the results of the studies were conflicting, with only one study examining TENS pain relief for lower back pain that was attributed to specific causes such as a pinched nerve, displaced vertebra, scoliosis or obesity.
While two studies supported TENS treatment for chronic lower back pain, two stronger studies and another weaker study did not show any benefit.
Based on these findings, the American Academy of Neurology does not recommend using the TENS unit for chronic lower back pain until more extensive studies are conducted.
However, the review did support TENS treatment for diabetic neuropathy, which refers to diabetes-related nerve pain that can lead to numbness, weakness, burning and other symptoms in the legs and arms.
As this review confirmed, the exact benefit of TENS is not fully understood even though the treatment is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is believed that TENS may provide pain relief by directly blocking pain signal transmission along the nerves.