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TENS Gets Thumbs Down as Back Pain Treatment

Guidelines Say Portable Device That Applies Electric Current Doesn't Relieve Low Back Pain
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Dec. 30, 2009 -- A widely used, somewhat controversial treatment for chronic low back pain is not effective and cannot be recommended, the American Academy of Neurology (AAN) now says.

Transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation, or TENS, is a pocket-sized, battery-operated device that sends electric currents to the nerves via electrodes with the goal of treating pain.

TENS has been used for pain relief for four decades, but studies evaluating its effectiveness have been mixed.

A review of the available research assessing the use of TENS for pain led to the newly published recommendation against its use for chronic low back pain, says neurologist and guideline co-author Richard M. Dubinsky, MD, MPH, of Kansas University Medical Center.

"From the systematic review of the literature, based on the strength of the studies, we can say that TENS does not work for low back pain," he tells WebMD.

TENS Is Effective for Diabetic Neruopathy

The AAN researchers reviewed TENS studies involving patients with chronic low back pain lasting three months or longer. All but one study excluded people with known causes of low back pain, such as pinched nerves, curving of the spine, or vertebra displacement.

Although some of the studies did show a benefit for TENS, the two most rigorously designed and executed trials reviewed by the researchers did not.

"We can’t say that TENS will not work in any patient with chronic low back pain," Dubinsky says. "We can say there is proof it doesn’t work in groups of patients with chronic low back pain."

The nerve-stimulating therapy was found to be probably effective for the treatment of nerve pain associated with diabetes, known as diabetic neuropathy.

AAN recommends that TENS be considered for the treatment of this type of pain.

But the researchers concluded that too little research has been done to recommend or advise against the use of TENS for the treatment of other types of nerve-related pain.

They wrote that "the evidence for the efficacy of TENS in treating pain associated with neurologic disorders is meager."

The revised guidelines appear in the Dec. 30 issue of the AAN journal Neurology.

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