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Using TENS in labour

The key points of this natural form of pain relief

Posted: 7 October 2008
by Maria Muennich

What is TENS and how does it work?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. A small, mobile unit sends electrical signals to nerve endings in your skin to block the transmission of pain to your brain and to stimulate your body to release endorphins, it's own natural pain killers. The signals are delivered to your skin via gel-covered pads wired to the unit and attached to specific places on your back. The signals can be varied in frequency and intensity as contractions become stronger.

When can I use TENS?
Research has shown TENS to be most effective when used from the onset of labour because it takes some time for your body to start reacting to the impulses. Many women find it most effective in the first half of labour when contractions are less strong, but it can also work for some women throughout labour - particularly for a second or subsequent child. It's commonly used in combination with Entonox (gas and air). You can't use a TENS machine if you are labouring in water or if you have a pacemaker fitted.


  • Works externally so does not affect either the baby or the mother's chemical balance
  • There is no evidence of medical risks associated with using TENS
  • Allows you to be mobile
  • Doesn't interfere with your control over labour
  • You control it completely and can stop whenever you feel it's not working for you
  • Can be used in conjunction with other pain relief, such as gas and air
  • Can be used for homebirths


  • If you have to hire a TENS machine it will cost about £30
  • You may find that the TENS doesn't do much for you, or that the added stimulus becomes irritating (but in that case you can simply abandon it)
  • The machine may have to be temporarily removed if the fetal heartbeat needs monitoring
  • The placement of pads on the back can make masssage through labour more difficult
  • You can't use TENS in a birthing pool

TENS machines are becoming increasingly popular with patients and midwives and are now often available in hospitals, but it is worth checking how many are available - and how many women they are to be shared between. If there are few or no TENS machines available, or if you're having a homebirth, then you can either buy a unit or hire one for a month period. Hiring a machine also (usually!) gives you the opportunity to familiarise yourself with it before the crucial time. There are plenty of different models to choose from, so ask your midwife for some advice.

If the birthing centre or hospital provides TENS machines they may well have advance demonstrations to explain how to use the machine most effectively.

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Pain relief in labour: an overview
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Using Entonox for pain relief in labour

labour, TENS, relief, pain, birth

Discuss this story

The physio dept. at my local hospital offer TENS machines out on a free hire period of one month. I collected mine at 38 weeks and have it to cover up to 2-3weeks after my Due Date. Its worth asking if your physio's offer the same.....saves £50 or so that can be spent on nursery stuff! (There is a waiting list so had to register an interest early on, but they are worth it, and the physio will take you through how to work it, where to place it etc...)

Posted: 02/07/2008 at 13:46

Hi Charlotte....have you used one of these TENS machines before?? Does it actually work & what does it feel like? The thought of one worries me a little...

Posted: 02/07/2008 at 15:06

Hi Charlotte & LHutch. I tried TENS during labour and I hated it. Was only using gas and air for pain relief, and as it makes you v tired the m/w suggest i try TENS to delay starting the gas and air. Know everyone is different but I really didnt get on with it. Felt like as well as the contractions someone was poking me in the back, and after a while even when I wasnt contracting the TENS had me twitching on the bed like a fish out of water! To be fair it wasnt all the machine, my OH fiddling with the settings really didnt help (men!!) and you might find its great. Just try it in your labour if you want to, if you dont like it just take it off.

Good luck. Em x

Posted: 02/07/2008 at 15:43

Thanks Em...gave birth to by son with no drugs (unless u count 2 paracetamol!) I'm just not sure I can be so brave 2nd time round!  

Posted: 02/07/2008 at 15:48

i tried to use this with my 2nd 10years ago and i just couldnt get the hang of it....but i think in 10yrs they would have improved dramatically.

im going to look into it again but doubt i will use as i think im more inclined to try a water birth this time round!!!

Posted: 03/07/2008 at 15:14

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