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Pain relief options

Using a TENS machine in labour

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Using a TENS machine in labour

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.

What is a TENS machine? 

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.

Is a TENS machine effective 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 2018 CQC survey, 13% 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.

Where can I use a TENS machine? 

One of the advantages of a TENS machine is that you can use it wherever you’re planning to give birth.

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 to the hospital unexpectedly.

Use our Where to give birth tool to see whether birth at home, in a birth centre or a labour ward could be the right choice for you.

Labour wards and birth centres

If you’re planning to give birth at a local birth centre or labour ward, check with your midwife if the unit has TENS machines for women in labour to borrow.

Bear in mind, however, that your hospital or birth centre may have a limited number of machines, and if other women are already using them, one may not be available to you when you go into labour.

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.

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 hospital for the induction.

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.

Are there any problems with 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.

  • If you want to 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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