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Should I use a Tens machine during labour?

By Lisa Galliers

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Should I use a Tens machine during labour?

What is a Tens machine, and can it help with pain relief during labour? Find out how they work as well as the costs, side effects and more.

Pregnant lady holding Tens machine

 

A Tens machine (Tens stands for Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) is a popular method of pain relief during the early stages of labour.

In our March 2014 survey of more than 1,200 mums who'd given birth within the last five years, 22% had used a Tens machine while giving birth, and the majority (68%) of those who used one told us they found it provided effective or very effective pain relief.

If you're in the early stages of pregnancy, visit Which? Birth Choice to find the best place for you to give birth. The site enables you to view hospital and birth centre stats and facilities in your area, and understand the pros and cons of different types of birth. It also shows whether the locations you're looking at provide Tens machines.

What is a Tens machine and how does it work?

Tens machines are designed to be attached to your back via sticky pads. The machine sends mild, painless electrical pulses to your body through the electrode pads, and some people find this helps reduce the pain experienced during labour.

It is not known exactly how they help to relieve pain, but it's thought that the machine ‘distracts’ the nerves that transmit pain. Using one may also boost your endorphin levels - your body's natural form of pain defence.

Most Tens machines have a digital display and several settings, such as a massage setting with a lower-pulse frequency or a more intensive mode with stronger pulses. A good machine will be lightweight and come with a belt clip so you can still move around while using it - many women find that moving around during labour can help them feel more comfortable.

How effective are they for pain relief during birth?

Our survey found that of those who used a Tens machine, 28% said it was very effective, while 40% said it was fairly effective. Only one in 10 (12%) found it to be not at all effective in helping to manage the pain.

According to the NHS, Tens machines have been proven to be effective only during the early stages of labour, when lower back pain is common. They have not been proven to be effective during the active phase of labour, when you’ll experience longer, stronger and more frequent contractions.

However, there's nothing to stop you continuing to use your Tens if you feel it's working, unless it interferes with any equipment being used to monitor your baby.

To help you decide whether a Tens machine is right for you, speak to your midwife to get their professional opinion and details of recommended products. Also ask friends, family and other parents-to-be in your antenatal class.

What are the side effects?

There are no documented side effects of using a Tens machine, for mother or baby.

Can I use a Tens machine for a water birth?

No. You can use one before entering the birthing pool, but you'll need to remove it before getting in the water.

How much do they cost to buy or hire?

Of the women we surveyed who had used Tens machines to relieve pain while giving birth, 37% bought their own, 30% hired one and 29% borrowed the machine from a friend.

Some hospitals also have their own Tens machines which you can use once you get there, and you can check this in advance using the Which? Birth Choice - find and compare birth locations tool. It's worth bearing in mind, though, that many women buy or hire one to use at home before going to hospital because the machines are more effective in the early stages of labour than the later ones.

Buying your own

You can buy a Tens machine for use during childbirth from Boots, Lloyds Chemists and other pharmacies, as well as baby stores such as Mothercare and online from the likes of Amazon and eBay. They can cost from around £30 to £70.

How much you spend will largely depend on the level of functionality you'd like - some have different preset programs designed to be used at different stages of labour, while pricier models also allow you to log the frequency and length of your contractions.

You could always go halves on one with another pregnant friend, provided your due dates are sufficiently far apart to avoid potential overlap.

If you do decide to buy a Tens machine, you'll need to check that it’s specifically designed to be used during labour. 

Renting 

An alternative option to buying your own Tens is to rent one, which can work out slightly cheaper. Hiring one typically costs between £20 and £30 for around six weeks.

Boots, Lloyds Pharmacy and Mothercare are just a few of the companies that offer Tens hire. Tens units are also available directly from the NHS or your physiotherapist.

Borrowing 

Our survey found that almost one in three women (29%) borrowed their Tens machine from a friend. This is a great choice in terms of money-saving, and also means your friend can show you how to use the machine - all in all, a very helpful option if it's available to you.

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