When your lower back pain flares up, you may reach for ice, heat, or pain-killers to alleviate your symptoms. But have you considered electrotherapy?

No single treatment works for everyone, but applying electrotherapy to your lower back may help you find short-term relief from your pain or discomfort.

See How Electrotherapy Works to Ease Pain

What is electrotherapy?

Electrotherapy typically involves the use of a battery-powered device that supplies a current to small electrodes (which attach to your back). This in turn sends electrical pulses to the area of your lower back experiencing symptoms. There are numerous kinds of electrotherapy devices available, but the most popular ones are transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) units.


Is TENS right for me?

Only you can decide if a TENS unit is a good investment. This is because, while electrotherapy is generally a safe treatment, some people find little to no benefit from it.

TENS units can range in price from less than $30 to hundreds of dollars, with money-back guarantees often offered for the more expensive units. Checking with the doctor or physical therapist before buying is a good idea. TENS may not be advised if you have a pacemaker or are pregnant, and should not be used over the heart.

However, before you purchase a TENS unit I suggest you also consider if you can find similar relief from a cheaper, or potentially free, treatment alternative. For example, stretching might bring you the same measure of relief as electrotherapy, but there is no cost associated with stretching.

See Stretching for Back Pain Relief

A final consideration to help you decide if a TENS unit is right for you is at what time of day you typically experience your symptoms. For example, if your back pain tends to flare up while sleeping, a wearable TENS unit might be a great pain-relief option.

See How Electrotherapy Works to Ease Pain

Tips for purchasing a TENS unit

If you decide electrotherapy is right for you, here are some tips to help you find the right TENS unit:

  • Speak with your doctor. TENS units are available both with and without a prescription, and there are a myriad of competitors on the market. Before you buy, check with your doctor or physical therapist to be sure TENS is right for you.
  • Factor in all the costs. Certain TENS manufacturers appeal to customers with the low price of the initial purchase. However, if you need to constantly replace batteries or electrode pads, the lifetime cost of the unit may turn out to be quite high.
  • Consider battery power. Some TENS units may require AA batteries, while others come with rechargeable batteries (similar to your cell phone). If the unit can be recharged you won’t have to worry about running out of replacement batteries.
  • Look for a return policy. Even if you find relief from electrotherapy at the doctor for your lower back pain, you may discover after a few weeks that your own device is not worth the investment. This is why it is a good idea to purchase a TENS unit that comes with at least a 30-day, hassle-free return policy.

While typically not serious, side effects of electrotherapy can include skin irritation or rash. If you have broken skin or an infection, it is advised you avoid using electrotherapy on those areas of your body.

Learn more:

Other Electrotherapy Treatments

Percutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation and Electrical Muscle Stimulation

Dr. John Revord is a physiatrist specializing in the management of spine pain. He has more than 25 years of experience in spine care and practices at the NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin. Dr. Revord is specially trained in a range of non-surgical procedures, and he has co-authored articles published in peer-reviewed journals.