Managing Multiple Sclerosis Symptoms With TENS Therapy

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition where the immune system attacks the protective myelin coating around nerves, disrupting signals between the brain and body. This can lead to a wide range of symptoms depending on which nerves are affected. These may include numbness, weakness, fatigue, vision changes, and mobility problems.

TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) therapy involves using a small battery-powered device to deliver mild electrical impulses through electrode pads on the skin. Evidence suggests TENS may help manage certain MS symptoms.

Overview of Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune condition that impacts the central nervous system in different ways depending on the type of MS:

  • Relapsing-remitting MS – This is the most common type, affecting around 85% of patients initially. It involves acute symptom flare-ups (relapses) followed by partial or full recovery periods (remissions).
  • Primary progressive MS – Around 15% of patients experience a slow but steady worsening of symptoms from the beginning with no distinct attacks or remissions.
  • Secondary progressive MS – Many relapsing-remitting patients eventually transition to this type after several years, where symptoms progressively worsen over time between any relapses.

How TENS Therapy Works

TENS devices deliver electrical impulses through electrodes placed on the skin near affected nerves or areas of pain. Users can control the strength and pattern of impulses with settings like:

  • Intensity – How strong the electrical current is, measured in milliamps (mA). A TENS unit typically allows adjusting up to 40-80mA.
  • Pulse rate – The frequency of impulses, often between 1-150 pulses per second. Faster rates around 80-120 Hz tend to be better for pain relief.
  • Pulse width – The duration of each impulse, adjustable from 50 to 400 microseconds. Wider pulse widths above 200 μs are more effective for deeper pain.
  • Mode – Some units have modes like burst, modulation, or massage to provide different impulse patterns.

The TENS unit delivers small electrical pulses via electrode pads stuck directly onto the skin near nerves. It’s thought this electrical stimulation can modify pain signals to the brain and trigger the release of natural pain-relieving endorphins.

TENS devices allow users to adjust the strength and pattern of impulses to tailor the therapy to their needs. Treatment sessions typically last 15-30 minutes and can be done 1-3 times per day.

How TENS May Improve MS Symptoms

Experts believe TENS may improve MS symptoms through several biological mechanisms:

  • Blocking pain signal transmission – Electrical impulses can interfere with the way pain sensations travel along nerves to the brain.
  • Increasing endorphins – Endorphins are natural pain-relieving chemicals in the body. TENS may boost production for added pain relief.
  • Reducing muscle spasm triggers – electrical stimulation may interrupt abnormal nerve firing patterns that trigger involuntary spasms.
  • Improving nerve function – Damaged myelin distrupts nerve signaling. TENS may help temporarily restore conduction along demyelinated nerves.
  • Increasing circulation – TENS is thought to boost blood flow and oxygen delivery to treated areas. This may aid recovery from MS nerve damage.

TENS for MS Pain Relief

A 2014 analysis found grade 2 evidence overall that TENS can safely and effectively reduce central neuropathic pain in MS. Central pain refers specifically to pain caused by damage to the central nervous system.

More recent 2021 research also highlighted multiple studies where TENS significantly reduced pain intensity from various sources. Overall, evidence indicates TENS may offer a useful option for managing certain pain symptoms associated with MS.

TENS to Reduce Muscle Spasms

Spasms are sudden involuntary muscle contractions that can be painful and disruptive for MS patients.

One small 2007 study of 32 MS patients found using TENS for extended periods (either 1 hour or 8 hours daily) appeared helpful for controlling spasms, though it didn’t reduce overall muscle tightness.

A 2018 review suggested TENS may also be considered for managing spasticity (constant muscle stiffness) in MS. Though Botox injections seem to be the most effective treatment for spasticity.

Improving Sensation

Numbness or reduced sensation is another common MS symptom. One interesting study had MS patients use TENS therapy on a nerve supply area for 1 hour daily for 3 weeks.

Patients showed improved skin sensitivity compared to before treatment, with benefits still noticeable 3 weeks after stopping TENS use. This indicates it may temporarily help overcome reduced sensation from MS nerve damage.

Accessing Support

Living with MS can be challenging. Resources like the MS Society, MS-UK, and Multiple Sclerosis Trust offer information and support to patients and caregivers. TENS devices are available from Zoom Health.

While more research is still needed, TENS therapy appears a promising option for certain MS-related symptoms. Patients can discuss TENS with their healthcare provider to see if it may beneficial for them.

Photo Back Pain by Anthony Cunningham for Zoom Health

Zoom Health is a leading UK supplier of Home Health Tests and Earplugs

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