Using a TENS machine to treat arthritis symptoms

A photo of an arthritis joint
Arthritis affects a huge percentage of the population.

Approximately 350 million people worldwide live with arthritis, which can make everyday activities such as getting dressed and doing chores very difficult due to the extreme discomfort it can cause. More than half of those with arthritis are under 65 years of age. Arthritis disables more people than any other chronic disorder.

While there are numerous treatments for arthritis, the use of the TENS machine is becoming more common because of its efficiency. We would discuss the treatment using a TENS machine as well as the frequently asked questions about this method of managing arthritic pains.

Is a TENS machine good for arthritis?

I want to start this article by giving you the quick answer for those that do not have time to read it all. I really do recommend reading the full article though as it will be really helpful to you.

So is a TENS machine good for arthritis? The quick answer to this is yes. Whilst a TENS machine will obviously not cure arthritis it will help to alleviate some of the associated pains. The small electrical pulses disrupt the pain signals sent to the brain, whilst your body also releases natural pain killing endorphins. People who suffer from arthritis will benefit from using a TENS machine.

Please read on to see the much more detailed version of this answer.

What is arthritis?

Arthritis involves inflammation of one or more joints of the body, usually producing pain, redness, and stiffness. It can affect one joint or multiple joints.

There are more than 100 different types of arthritis, with different causes and treatment methods. Two of the most common types are osteoarthritis (OA) aka “wear-and-tear” arthritis – a degenerative disease of the joints that commonly occurs with aging, and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) – an autoimmune disease of unknown cause which is a progressive, crippling joint disorder most common in women between 25 and 50.

The symptoms of arthritis usually develop over time, but they may also appear suddenly. Arthritis is most commonly seen in adults over the age of 65, but it can also develop in children, teens, and younger adults. Arthritis is more common in women than men and in people who are overweight.

The more that we understand that the stress we place our joints today can lead to the development of arthritis later, the more we might treat them — and ourselves — with better care

What causes arthritis?

Arthritis diagram
Above is what happens to your knuckle joints due to arthritis

Determining the cause of arthritis can be difficult since multiple, overlapping factors typically contribute to its development. Among the 7 most common risk factors associated with arthritis:

Genetics seem to play a key role the development of certain types of arthritis, although the association is still not fully understood. What we do know is that a family history can suggest an increased risk depending on the type of arthritis involved. Certain forms of rheumatoid arthritis, for example, are linked to genetic markers. Other forms of arthritis seem less influenced by genetics.
Older age is a major factor as cartilage becomes increasingly brittle over time and has less capacity to repair itself. The development of osteoarthritis is typically seen to begin between the ages of 40 and 50, although it can start earlier in other forms of the disorder.
Obesity is another factor as it directly contributes to the stress a joint can be placed under. This is especially true for the joint of the hips and knees, where excessive weight can impact the joint directly and cause inflammation that gradually eats away joint tissues.
Previous joint damage can cause irregularities in the normal, smooth joint surface. Previous injury certainly plays a part in the development of arthritis of the wrist, where the complex bone and cartilage structure can be easily compromised by impact or compression.
Occupational hazards include those which happen in jobs involving manual labor or repetitive motion. As such, protective measures are often put in place to minimize damage caused by heavy lifting and activities that demand the constant flexure and retraction of a joint.
High-level sports activity can lead to arthritis if it involves blunt force impact or results in damage to a bone or joint. On the flip side, moderate, routine exercise can minimize the symptoms or development of arthritis by bolstering the muscular structure around a joint, giving it support.
Certain infections around the joint, whether bacterial or viral, cause lead to the deterioration of cartilage or the formation of skin lesions that penetrate the joint and synovial membrane.

The symptoms of arthritis.

Arthritis in the knuckle joints
Arthritis in the knuckles is a common condition.

During the early stages of arthritis, you may feel a variety of symptoms, including

1. Fatigue: Before experiencing any other symptoms, a person with RA or OA may feel extremely tired and lack energy.
2. Slight fever: Inflammation associated with arthritis may cause people to feel unwell and feverish.
3. Weight loss.
4. Stiffness.
5. Joint tenderness, pain, swelling and redness.

Ways that you can treat arthritis symptoms

Medicines you rub on your skin or take by mouth, injections, physical therapy, heat, cold, and acupuncture are just a few of the ways to make your arthritis more bearable. Yet you may still be searching for relief.

There is no cure for arthritis. However, the types of medications recommended by your doctor will depend on the severity of your symptoms and how long you’ve had it.

Clinical studies indicate that remission of symptoms is more likely when treatment begins early with medications known as disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs). These drugs can slow the progression of rheumatoid arthritis and save the joints and other tissues from permanent damage.

There are also nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that can relieve pain and reduce inflammation, as well as steroids and biologic agents (also known as biologic response modifiers). These drugs can target parts of the immune system that trigger inflammation that causes joint and tissue damage.

This is what TENS machine therapy is.

Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (TENS)Unit – or neuromodulation – is an alternative to medication for treating arthritis pain. It’s the principle of using electricity to decrease pain sensations. Neuromodulation treatments can ease pain with minimal risks.

Electrical stimulation for pain control was used in ancient Rome, 63 A.D. Pain was relieved by standing on an electrical fish at the seashore. In the 16th through the 18th century, various electrostatic devices were used for headache and other pains.

The first modern, patient-wearable TENS was patented in the United States in 1974. It was initially used for testing the tolerance of chronic pain patients to electrical stimulation before implantation of electrodes in the spinal cord dorsal column. Although intended only for testing tolerance to electrical stimulation, many of the patients said they received so much relief from the TENS itself that they never returned for the implant.

TENS is a simple, non-invasive technique, in which electrical currents, generated by a portable stimulating unit, powered by a small 9 volt battery, are passed through the surface of the skin to activate underlying nerves via two or four electrodes. Conductive gel or pre-gelled electrodes are used to decrease resistance across the skin-electrode interface, and the electrodes can be concealed under clothing if necessary.

TENS produces a “strong and comfortable” tingling sensation (electrical paraesthesia) within the painful area and the intensity and quality of electrical paraesthesia (ie pulse intensity, pulse frequency and pulse pattern) can be varied and controlled by the patient according to his/her requirements. TENS has been shown to produce useful analgesic effects in all types of patients suffering from acute or chronic pain and has gained worldwide attention and use.

Using a TENS machine to treat the symptoms of arthritis.

A TENS machine has controls that allow you to administer an appropriate level of pain relief. People can achieve this by altering the areas of the electrical current.

TENS works in two ways:

1. Pain Gate Control: High frequency stimuli (15 – 150Hz) causes the central nervous system to transmit via the large dial nerve signals that causes “gates” cells in the pain pathways to “switch off” pain transmission.
2. Endorphin Release: Low frequency stimulation (2 – 9 Hz) encourages the release of morphine like substances which block pain at receptor sites in the nerve pathways. Studies have shown that endomorphic related pain relief can often last for periods which extend considerably beyond the time stimuli.

TENS can be delivered at low frequency (l-TENS) or high frequency (h-TENS). Many TENS devices have a controller that lets you pick the frequency you prefer.

While using a TENS machine, you’ll experience a non-painful tingling or buzzing sensation, and this can help to block or suppress pain messages. Two electrode pads are usually positioned either side of the area of most intense pain. This is done so that the TENS sensation covers the painful area.

Four electrode pads can be used to treat a larger area of pain. You’ll be able to control the strength, (or ‘volume’) of the current that’s passed through the electrodes, with a rotary knob or dial. Some machines have larger controls that are easier to use if your hand movements are limited.

You can adjust the strength of the current until the tingling sensation from TENS is intense, but not painful. You’ll also be able to adjust the pattern and speed of the current, so that the TENS sensation is as comfortable as possible. Many TENS machines are digital and have helpful pre-sets to help you choose the best settings for your pain.

A tens machine
A TENS machine can provide the perfect antidote for arthritis relief.

Does using a TENS machine really work for treating arthritis?

Yes it certainly does!

TENS helps acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) pain. TENS has been shown to relieve osteoarthritis (OA) pain and reduce the need for pain medications. A 2015 Cochrane Review concluded, “[there is] tentative evidence that TENS reduces pain intensity over and above that seen with placebo.” There is an estimate of people who try TENS get a 50% reduction in pain.

Several factors may influence the effectiveness of TENS:


A 2012 review suggests that the duration of pain relief increases after repeated TENS treatments. However, this repetition can also increase the likelihood of a person building up a tolerance to the treatment. To prevent this from occurring, people can alternate between Low Frequency and High Frequency TENS within each treatment session, or they can gradually increase the intensity or duration of TENS on a daily basis.

Stimulation intensity

The range of intensities of the electrical stimulation may account for some of the differences in research findings.Given that High Frequency TENS is a more effective pain reliever, experts recommend that people apply the highest-intensity TENS that they can tolerate.

Electrode placement

TENS may be more effective if people place the electrodes on acupuncture points. Acupuncture is a practice that uses needles to stimulate the nerves beneath the skin at specific locations known as acupuncture points.

The benefits of using a TENS machine to treat arthritis.

TENS unit therapy is ideal for the treatment of arthritis. TENS has many advantages over conventional treatment for pain.

It is non-invasive, fast acting and a drug-free naturalpain relief.
TENS is natural as it encourages the body to produce higher levels of its own natural pain killing chemicals i.e. endorphins and encephalin.
It does not require surgical intervention
Unlike analgesic drugs, it has no serious adverse effects.
It can be used long term and can if necessary be used in conjunction with other analgesics, such as drugs
TENS is safe, so you can use it as much as you like, although it’s good practice to take regular 10-minute breaks every hour or so. Some people use TENS for more than five hours a day.
User friendly

This is how to use a TENS machine to treat arthritis.

TENS is an alternative to medication for treating arthritis pain. These devices are generally safe. However, they involve sending electrical impulses though your body. So it’s important to talk with your doctor first.

Using a TENS machine effectively.

1. If your arthritic pain is confined to a single region, a TENS unit may help reduce your pain. Just place the electrode pads above and below or parallel to the involved joint.
2. If your arthritic pain is in multiple areas, such as from rheumatoid arthritis, I recommend pad placements in this order. First apply the pads to the most painful region, followed by other areas as needed.
3. If you have chronic arthritic pain at the hip or knee, it is also possible that TENS applied to the low back can decrease pain. This occurs because the nerve supply to those joints originates from the lumbar spine.
4. If you are active and have arthritis in the knee, you can improve mobility during and immediately after a TENS Unit therapy session.
5. If you have constant arthritic pain, it is recommended to keep the pads attached to the painful region and activating the TENS unit on and off as necessary. You can use it safely 30 minutes at a time for up to 3 times each day.
6. When seeking a TENS unit, you should find one that has both high and low pulse-rate (pulses per second) components. Research has shown that both are helpful in decreasing the discomfort of osteoarthritis.

If you’ve lived with arthritis for any length of time, your doctor has undoubtedly talked you through a menu of pain-relief options.

TENS machine therapy has minimal risks.

Tens machine therapy has very low risks as long as the below guidance is followed.

Check with your doctor or physiotherapist to make sure that using a TENS machine is a safe option for you.
Don’t use a TENS machine if you have a pacemaker or other implanted electrical device. You should check with your physiotherapist that TENS is a safe option for your pain if you have epilepsy, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), heart problems, cancer or skin that is numb, irritated or fragile.
TENS can be used if you have these conditions, but you must seek advice from your physiotherapist or doctor first.
Generally, you can use TENS during early pregnancy, providing it isn’t used over the abdomen or lower back. Again, you must check with your physiotherapist or doctor that TENS is a safe option for your situation.
Never place the electrodes over the front of your neck, over your eyes, directly on your head or in your mouth.
Don’t use TENS when driving, using machinery, sleeping, or in the bath/shower.
Your skin may become slightly red and itchy when you remove the electrodes, but this should disappear quickly. It’s important to monitor your skin regularly after using TENS, to ensure it remains healthy.
If redness, itchiness and soreness persist, then contact your physiotherapist, GP or pharmacist for advice. Some people develop a more serious skin reaction to TENS and may need to temporarily stop using it to let the skin recover.
If you intend to use TENS when flying, inform the airline first.
TENS machines can be bought without a prescription at pharmacies and on the internet. Ask your doctor to refer you to a physiotherapist, so you can try it out first. Your physiotherapist can show you how to use the machine properly and will get you to try TENS for a few hours a day until you get used to it. You may be able to borrow one for a specified period of time. After this, you’ll be encouraged to use TENS regularly throughout the day, whenever you need pain relief. This is because the effects can be short-lived, although can last for hours after use.


TENS offers a great alternative treatment for arthritis. They are useful when managing joint pain as they send pulses to nerve endings which stimulate the body’s natural pain relief mechanism to block the pain. Although there is limited evidence to support its effectiveness, patients with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis have reportedsignificant reduction in pain, particularly when they were using the TENS machine alongside changes to their lifestyle.

To have better chances with TENS, professional diagnosis and recommendation are vital. You should check in with a doctor who has your medical history to assist in selecting the correct stimulator and give advice on the placement of electrodes according to the regions of pain.


TENS Machine Pro is made up of a number of veteran TENS machine users. We strongly believe that we can help you on your way to pain relief! All of our writings are fact checked and sources and further reading listed at the bottom of posts.