What you need to know about using TENS in labour

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I'll be honest. While I didn't have elaborate birth plans for my first two babies, I had an idea of what kind of painkillers I wanted to use. While I'd heard of TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) as an option, for some reason it didn't appeal to me.

Fast forward to my third pregnancy. By then, I was more open to hearing about alternative pain relief options in labour (funny, that).

Besides, Women's Health Physiotherapist and Founder and Managing Director of BeActive Physio, Shira Kramer, gave me great advice about it. And she had some convincing arguments.

Firstly, she said there are no side effects. As in, using TENS can't affect your baby at all, and has no risks of you feeling sick or having other negative reactions.

Even better, it puts you, as the labouring mother, "in control" of the pain. It does this by allowing you to "turn up the intensity" of the machine as needed.

Plus, she explained, it's easy to use. An Obstetric TENS is a hand-held battery-operated device. The button part can be worn around your neck by hanging off a string, like a necklace, so you can keep your hands free.

The machine bit is then attached via two wires to two electrodes, which are like big stickers that go on your lower back. Another bonus is that once it's all attached, you can move around freely.

"The correct placement of the electrodes is important," says Kramer, adding that they need to be put over the nerve roots that "feed" the uterus and cervix.


While that sounds really technical, your women's health physiotherapist can show you where that is. (In basic terms, those electrodes are popped on either side of your spine on your lower back).

Then, when you go into labour, you can set yourself up – and voila, you're ready to get going.

The only thing you need to avoid once it's on is getting wet (so no, you can't use TENS and have a water birth at the same time).

Kramer says you should start using TENS early in labour, as using it gives you an endorphin effect. These, she explains, "Are the feel good hormones released after a good exercise session that gives you that 'runner's high'".

Once you start to feel a contraction, you then press the 'booster button' and the machine starts delivering these tingly kind of impulses to your skin. The aim is that these impulses block the painful sensation of the contractions.

You see, both 'pain' and those 'tingly sensations' want to use the same nerves to tell the brain to feel something. But both sensations can't use that same nerve at the same time.

So if those tingly sensations are stronger, they then get to use the nerve and block the pain from getting through. As your contractions get stronger, you'll need to turn the machine up to get a stronger effect.

And I'll tell you what: it works.

When I felt the first twinges of labour in the middle of the night with my third baby, I eagerly popped on my TENS. After a while of increasingly regular, but not overly painful, contractions, I decided to see what my contractions were 'really' like (without the TENS doing its thing).

Um, yeah. I could feel the difference straight away.

The best part of the TENS, in my opinion, was the relief it provided me on the drive to hospital. Instead of writhing in pain in the car (which I may have done in my first labour), I was calm and distracted.

Once labour got further under way, I must admit I needed more painkillers; the TENS wasn't quite enough for me once labour was in full swing.

Even so, I would highly recommend it. It was like having a best friend hold my hair back while vomiting; I was still vomiting (or in labour, actually), but it wasn't as bad as it could have been without my friend.

My only regret? I didn't try it for my first two births.