Can a TENS Device Help IBS?
Last updated: January 2023
Lately, I have been experiencing some pretty intense abdominal cramps that have been waking me up in the middle of the night.
This is not a complete anomaly for me: throughout the years and my long struggle with both IBS and endometriosis, I have gone through times when abdominal pain has wrenched me from my sleep or disturbed my day and caused me to shelve my plans and stay at home on the couch.
I have an arsenal of treatments I employ for these kinds of situations, sometimes one at a time, and then many at once. I introduce each one individually, to see if it helps by itself, and if it doesn't help at all or completely, I try another thing instead or on top of it, until I achieve a modicum of relief.
TENS machine for IBS pain
So, when I am woken up at 3am with a twisting sensation in my guts, I may first reach for a heating pad and do some light stretches or crunches. If that still offers no or only minimal relief, I might take some medication (usually in the form of dicyclomine -- an intestinal muscle relaxant that often helps). I may massage certain topical treatments into my abdomen and then reapply heat.
The other night after trying all of these methods, I tried something new. I removed my heating pad and replaced it my TENS machine. I have a TENS machine that is thin and small and kidney-shaped that is intended to be placed on the low back area/sacrum. I've found it is helpful at times for relieving or distracting from low back pain, which is another malady I suffer from. But it is also the perfect size and shape for my abdomen, so I figured "why not?" At first I tried a high voltage, but it was too intense, so I lowered it to the point where I could barely detect the pulses.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that it achieved in that moment what all the other modalities I had tried that night could not: enough relief from the pain so that I could fall back asleep. Over the next couple of days, as the cramps came and went, I continued to use it and find at least enough relief to go about my daily business: running errands, even a small hike around a local pond.
How a TENS machine works
For those who may not be familiar with it, TENS stands for "transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation." As its name suggests, it offers electric stimulation, which can actually interfere with pain signals at a given site on the body. Usually, it has a series of sticky pads you can put on the problematic parts of your body that are causing you pain. These sticky pads hook up to a small device that delivers the electrical pulses through the wires. For my situation, I have a pad that doesn't require hook-ups, but has a tiny little machine on it (the size of a baby calculator and very slim), attached to it.
I have had other TENS machines before, but they were too big and bulky, and an inconvenience to carry around and use, though I did find some relief from them in applying the pads to my back, neck and wrists. I got this new kind of TENS unit, to make it more compact and because rather than have a series of small sticky pads, I have one larger one to fit over a problem area (i.e., sacrum or abdomen). Even though it's larger/longer, it is very thin in width so isn't bulky under my clothes and I don't have to clip on to my pants or carry around in my hands an external device. In short, my current TENS unit is more portable and self-containing, and therefore much more convenient and efficient to use for these specific problem areas.
The first time I experienced the use of TENS on my abdomen was during acupuncture. My acupuncturist would hook up the needles she had stuck in my belly (not at all as painful as that sounds! In fact, I barely feel the needles when they are in and when she puts them in it's just a slight prick) to tiny prods connected to a TENS unit and have it deliver some nerve stimulation. She did it at the lowest voltage detectable to me. It was not painful and actually kind of soothing. I found afterwards I felt much better! This is what inspired me to try the TENS unit on my abdomen a couple of weeks ago when I couldn't sleep due to cramping and I am glad I did.
Studies about TENS treatment
Out of curiosity I checked to see if any studies looked into the effect of TENS treatments on IBS. I found one study from 2004 that concluded: "Short-term acupoint TENS increased rectal sensory thresholds of IBS-D patients. After 2-month acupoint TENS treatment in IBS-D patients, rectal sensory thresholds were significantly increased, stool times and the intensity of abdominal pain were decreased, and psychological scores were relieved to normal...Acupoint TENS is effective to treat IBS-D."1 So to a small extent, it seems there is some validity to TENS treatment for IBS pain than being just a placebo effect.
Whatever the reason is that it offers me relief, I will continue to keep my TENS unit close by and use it when my other methods for controlling cramping fail or fall short.
Have you ever used a TENS machine to deal with abdominal cramping associated with IBS? Did it help? Please feel free to offer your input in the comments section below!
Do you suffer from IBS-C, IBS-D, or IBS-Mixed/Alternating?