Using A TENS Unit For Carpal Tunnel – Is It The Best Option?

by Will Bozeman

Affecting an estimated 4-10 million Americans, carpal tunnel syndrome is considered to be one of the most common nerve disorders in the U.S. But despite how widespread this condition is, the pain derived from carpal tunnel affects each person differently and has a unique impact on their lives. 

If you are among those experiencing debilitating hand and wrist discomfort, surgery (i.e., carpal tunnel release) might seem like the inevitable choice. Luckily, thanks to today’s advances in regenerative medicine and electroanalgesia, there are other non-surgical and non-invasive – but just as effective! – solutions worth considering, including transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). 

But is using a TENS unit really the best solution?

In this guide, you’ll learn about using a TENS unit for carpal tunnel and discover the more efficient natural treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome. Let’s dive right in!

How Does a TENS Unit For Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Work?

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a pain-relieving treatment that delivers mild impulses of electricity delivered across (trans) the depth of the skin (cutis). 

TENS units have grown in popularity since their commercial introduction in the early 1970s. Users saw TENS as a new non-invasive, self-administered, accessible, and affordable analgesic (pain-relieving) treatment. 

For the millions of people affected by carpal tunnel syndrome, TENS has long been an effective way to manage pain and avoid surgery. Let’s look at what carpal tunnel syndrome is and cover the basics of using a TENS unit to treat this condition.

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: An Overview

Our hands and wrists are at the forefront of any action we perform in our daily life. This is thanks to the complex infrastructure of ligaments, nerves, and muscles that make it all possible. 

At the core of these interconnected elements is the carpal tunnel, the passageway in the inner wrist that houses the median nerve. This nerve is responsible for controlling hand movement and transmitting signals from the hand to the brain, and vice-versa.

Over time, factors such as wrist injuries, aging, repetitive motions, arthritis, obesity, thyroid disorders, diabetes, and hormonal changes (i.e., during pregnancy or menopause) can increase the risk of carpal tunnel syndrome. These factors can cause the carpal tunnel to become inflamed and swollen, thus compressing the median nerve as it passes through the carpal tunnel.

As a result, you might begin to experience feelings of pain or discomfort (especially localized around the thumb or the first three fingers), tingling and numbness spreading from the wrist to the hand, and reduced grip and hand mobility.

Understanding How TENS Units Work

If you have been diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), you might be struggling to deal even with the simplest of tasks. In this case, it is understandable to start looking for the most efficient solutions for your symptoms. And, when looking for valid alternatives to surgical interventions, you might have come across TENS for carpal tunnel.

TENS treatments are delivered with a TENS unit, a battery-operated device with wires attached to electrodes (adhesive pads). These pads are then applied to the skin on the area affected by inflammation or pain (the wrist area, in this case) to deliver electrical impulses, which cause a double pain-relieving action:

  • The surge of electrical activity floods the nervous system, thus preventing pain signals from reaching the spinal cord and the brain
  • The electric pulses trigger the production of pain-relieving hormones such as endorphins 

TENS is an electroanalgesic treatment, or a therapy that uses electrical stimulation to modulate, control, and manage pain. 

In the video below, you can learn more about using a TENS unit: 

TENS For Carpal Tunnel: Is It An Effective Treatment Option?

While some patients report improvements and pain relief in the short term, the research surrounding TENS for carpal tunnel is still ongoing.

Although there is no “one-size-fits-all” formula when it comes to devising a treatment for CTS, you might find that a TENS-based treatment program can reduce pain and discomfort in the short term. 

While the electrical impulses transmitted by the TENS unit will not permanently cure the pain or the underlying syndrome, but they can temporarily hinder the pain receptors in the hand and wrist and prevent pain signals from reaching the brain. 

Although often subjective, the analgesic effects of TENS for carpal tunnel usually last for the duration of the treatment, but some people also experience a reduction in pain for up to 24 hours after switching off the TENS device. 

While the clinical effectiveness of a TENS unit for carpal tunnel is still being researched, this treatment has no serious side effects (when used correctly) and can be used in combination with other pain management alternatives.

What The Research Says About TENS And Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Given its accessibility, TENS has become one of the most popular go-to non-pharmaceutical and non-surgical solutions for CTS. Some patients vouch for its effectiveness, but what does science say? 

According to a 2014 randomized controlled trial published in Rheumatology International, TENS therapy is just as effective as splint therapy (wearing wrist splints as recommended by a healthcare professional) in the management of the symptoms of CTS. The same trial also showed that interferential current (IFC) therapy might be more effective than TENS treatments.

What’s more, another study published in 2010 in the International Journal of Clinical Rheumatology, microamp TENS coupled with acupuncture appears to be a beneficial nonsurgical option for the management of CTS symptoms, alongside yoga, bracing, and hand therapy. 

Ongoing clinical trials have also shown that electrical stimulation (ES) can promote nerve regeneration in patients that have already undergone carpal tunnel release surgery for severe CTS. 

Despite the promising results, a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials conducted in 2019 shows that the majority of the studies conducted so far on the effectiveness of TENS as a non-surgical treatment for CTS (and other types of chronic pain) have been inconclusive due to insufficient data.

The Importance Of Wavelength

For all electrical stimulation (e-stim) therapies, including TENS and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), the chosen pulse width, frequency, and intensity matters. These variables are described as following:

  • Frequency: the rate at which pulses of electricity are delivered to the skin. This frequency is measured in hertz (Hz). Higher frequencies are best for pain relieving. 
  • Intensity – Intensity refers to how intense the sensations caused by TENS are. Low-intensity TENS produce not painful sensations (known as paresthesia), vehicle higher intensity TENS produce sensations that are closer to the patient’s pain threshold. 
  • Pulse Width – This variable refers to how long each pulse of electricity lasts. Pulse width is measured in microseconds (μs).

Depending on the kind of pain or discomfort that is being treated, you might try one of three main TENS techniques:

  • Conventional TENS: Conventional TENS is a form of therapy that delivers high-frequency electrical pulses (50-100 Hz) within a small width (50-200μs) to the affected area. Unlike intense TENS, conventional TENS cause mild and not painful sensations.
  • Acupuncture-like TENS: Acupuncture-like TENS therapies use higher-intensity pulses, near the pain threshold. While these pulses feel stronger, they are low in frequency (2-4Hz), and longer in width (100-400μs). These pulses are delivered to acupuncture points to stimulate the sensory nerves under the skin.
  • Intense TENS: Intense e-stim therapies deliver electrical pulses at a high intensity and high frequency, which are just tolerable by the patient.

Although the best frequency for your needs varies, studies show that conventional TENS is the most suitable therapy for acute pain. In particular, frequencies between 50 and 150 Hz are best for acute pain as they activate the delta-opioid receptor (located in several areas of the brain), thus blocking the pain reception in the brain. 

On the other hand, lower frequencies between 2 and 10 Hz have been seen to activate the mu-opioid receptors, which trigger the release of pain-relieving endorphins. 

Safety Vs. Effectiveness

While the effectiveness of this treatment might still be disputed, there are no known major safety concerns about the use of a TENS unit for carpal tunnel (when used correctly), aside from potential skin irritation (due to the adhesive pads) and temporary discomfort. Additionally, if used for prolonged periods, low-frequency TENS may cause side effects such as muscle fatigue and muscle damage.

There are also some contraindications to TENS treatment. You should also avoid using TENS machines if you are pregnant, have a heart condition, or wear a pacemaker or any kind of internal electronic device. You should also avoid placing the electrodes on your head, neck, ears, chest, genitals, and eyes. 

Additionally, FDA has concerns about the unregulated market of home e-stim devices which have caused burns, skin irritation, and bruising to users.

Why Home TENS Units Are Not Effective Enough

If you are looking for an affordable, alternative, FDA-cleared, and natural alternative to injections, splints, and medications for your CTS, you might consider investing in an at-home TENS device. 

Although there are few risks and the treatment can be self-administered, a home TENS unit for carpal tunnel might not deliver the expected results. While the studies above showed some effect on pain and symptoms, the treatment was administered by experienced technicians using professional TENS units with much greater capabilities than over-the-counter TENS devices. Even then, most of the results were inconclusive!

There are more effective and efficient electrical stimulation treatments out there. Here’s why you should always work with a specialist who can administer professional electroanalgesic treatments:

Weak Electrical Current

Although you should ask a professional to show you how to use a home TENS unit, they are designed to be easy to use, even by those with little training. That is why most home TENS devices have pre-determined settings and frequency options. 

However, when it comes to treating acute hand or wrist pain – such as carpal tunnel syndrome – these units might not have the required power and frequency settings to relieve your discomfort. 

Oppositely, electroanalgesic treatments performed by a professional using an FDA-cleared device are able to deliver higher-pulse wavelengths. In turn, this boosts the treatment’s efficiency, delivers longer-lasting results, and guarantees higher levels of safety for patients. 

Lack Of Precision

At-home TENS treatments are much easier to administer on larger surfaces, such as the shoulder area. However, when it comes down to addressing your CTS, it is important to keep in mind that the carpal tunnel is no longer than 12.7 ± 2.5 mm and only around 19.2 mm wide. 

In turn, targeting this area can be challenging with electrical pulses, especially as you’ll need to place the electrodes in the right place and select an accurate electrical frequency and pulse width. 

With so many variables, the best option to see results is to work with a healthcare professional who specializes in delivering electroanalgesic treatments.

Why You Should Reconsider TENS Therapy For Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

As we have seen above, TENS therapy can be an efficient alternative to temporarily subside the pain and discomfort of CTS during flare-ups. And, in a post-operative scenario, it can even help with nerve regeneration. 

However, if your pain is recurring or chronic, doing TENS for carpal tunnel isn’t just inefficient – it can also be counterproductive! TENS does not cure the underlying condition and, if performed wrongly, it can lead to side effects such as burns or irritated skin. Even more importantly, if your pain is chronic, using a TENS unit for carpal tunnel multiple times a day just isn’t a long-term solution!

Medical-grade TENS therapy is certainly safer and more effective than using at-home devices. However, even in this case, you should bear in mind that, without a long-term strategy in place to restore the health of your carpal tunnel and median nerve, you might not be able to regain your hand’s functionalities and grip strength by counting on TENS alone!


The Superior Alternative Treatment To TENS

If you have carpal tunnel syndrome, your condition will affect a lot more than just your hand and wrists. Because of the pain and reduced grip strength, you might be struggling to take part in the hobbies or sports you have always loved, or you might have noticed your professional performance declining as the pain gets worse. 

Because CTS can take over so many aspects of your life, simply addressing wrist pain with a TENS unit for carpal tunnel might not be enough. 

At Neuragenex, our neurofunctional approach takes into consideration these aspects and aims to address all the factors, symptoms, and underlying causes of your CTS, so that you can magnify your life and restore your hand’s full capabilities. We do so by creating a custom holistic treatment protocol that is natural, non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical, non-chiropractic, and non-surgical. 

Some of the therapies we use to address your CTS pain and restore your health include:

  • Electroanalgesia: Electroanalgesic treatments use electrical pulses to block the pain signals traveling from your hand, through the median nerve, to the brain (which is a concept known as Gate Control Hypothesis). Electrical pulses also reduce inflammation, stimulate the body’s healing process, and trigger the production of pain-relieving endorphins. 
  • IV Therapy: IV therapy is used to deliver nutrient-rich fluids intravenously. These nutrients aim to reduce inflammation, stimulate the body’s healing process, provide hydration, support proper circulation, and promote cell regeneration. 
  • Lifestyle Counseling: Lifestyle counseling can help you understand what causes CTS, how to prevent flare-ups and protect you from injury, and how to introduce changes in your life that will improve your overall health, well-being, and quality of life. 

At Neuragenex, the electrical stimulation we use is part of a broader neurofunctional pain management approach, which makes it more efficient to treat chronic pain. What’s more, thanks to our medical-grade devices and highly trained specialists, we can deliver electroanalgesic treatments that provide relief for longer. With regular sessions for 12 weeks, you’ll be able to feel relief for multiple hours or days after the treatment.

Get Effective Treatment For The Pain From Your Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

If you are tired of dealing with inefficient CTS treatments, or you wish to find a way around the side effects of pain medications, the team at Neuragenex can help. Our team of specialists can provide effective, safe, and non-surgical treatment for carpal tunnel syndrome, along with other common conditions.

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