Coping with pain in labour

Using a TENS machine in labour

6 min read

TENS is a popular and safe pain relief option that you can use wherever you plan to give birth. Find out how a TENS machine can help you cope with labour pain, and where to buy or hire one.

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What is a TENS machine and how does it work?

TENS stands for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. The machine sends mild, painless electrical pulses to your body when you’re having contractions, via sticky electrode pads attached to your back. Many women find this helps reduce the pain experienced during labour.

While it’s not known exactly how a TENS machine helps to relieve pain, it’s thought that the pulses ‘distract’ the nerves that are transmitting 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 intense 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 is a TENS machine for pain relief?

According to the NHS, TENS machines are 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 TENS if you feel it’s working for you.

In a 2017 CQC survey, 14% of women reported using a TENS machine during labour and a 2014 Which? survey found that three quarters of women who used one said that it helped them cope with the pain of contractions.

Are there any problems with using a TENS machine?

There are no documented side effects of using a TENS machine, for you or your baby. There is no time limit on how long you can use it for during birth, and because it doesn’t contain any drugs, as soon as you turn the machine off, the effect of the electrical pulses go away.

Can I use a TENS machine where I want to give birth?

One of the advantages of a TENS machine is that you can use it wherever you’re planning to give birth, and as early or late in the first stage of labour as you want.

  • If you want have a water birth, you’ll have to remove the TENS machine before getting in the birth pool, but you can use it up until that point.
  • If your baby needs to be monitored with CTG, you may need to remove the TENS machine if it interferes with the equipment.

It’s also a pain relief option you can use while you’re travelling to the maternity unit in labour, or if you need to be transferred from your home birth or birth centre to the hospital unexpectedly.

Read more about what pain relief options are available at home, in a birth centre and in a labour ward.

Labour wards and birth centres

You can look up your maternity unit to find out what type of birth equipment, including TENS machines, they have available to women in labour. Bear in mind, however, that your hospital or birth centre may have a limited number or machines, and if other women are already using them, one may not be available to you.

Because TENS machines tend to be the most useful in the early stages of labour, you may decide to buy or hire one in advance even if you’re planning to go to a maternity unit for the birth, to help you cope with the contractions until you’re in established labour and ready to travel to the maternity unit.

If you’re being induced, remember to put your TENS machine in your hospital bag so you have it handy when you get to the labour ward and the induction starts.

Home birth

While the home birth midwives will be able to supply you with gas and air, you will need to buy or hire a TENS machine if you want to use one during labour.

Have a look at our home birth checklist for more tips on good things to have ready when you’re planning to give birth at home.

Buying, hiring or borrowing a TENS machine

If you’ve decided that you want the peace of mind of having a TENS machine ready at home before you go into labour, there are several options for how to get hold of one.

buy, hire or borrow tens machine

Buying your own

You can buy a TENS machine from pharmacies, baby stores and online. It’s important that you check that the TENS machine you’re buying is specifically designed to be used during labour – other versions exist for other types of pain. If in doubt, talk to your midwife at one of your antenatal appointments for recommendations of brands.

TENS machines cost 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.

Renting

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

Many of the larger pharmacy chains and baby stores offer TENS hire, and they’re also available to hire directly from the NHS or physiotherapists.

Borrowing

Our survey found that almost one in three women 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. 

More from Which?


References

These are the sources of information used in this article:

Care Quality Commission, Maternity Services Survey 2017 (2017)

Dowswell T, Bedwell C, Lavender T, Neilson JP, Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for pain management in labour (Review), Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews CD007214, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd (2009)

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