How to Use a TENS Unit for Tennis Elbow

It's not easy to live with pain in your arm, but that's the reality when you are dealing with tennis elbow.  You know you are supposed to rest your arm so it will get better, but sometimes that's just not possible.

If you are looking for a drug-free way to reduce the pain, a TENS Unit for tennis elbow may be the solution.  It's easy to use at home too.

Let's take a look at how a TENS unit can treat tennis elbow.

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What is Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow the layman's term for a condition where the tendons that join your forearm muscles to your bones have weakened.  The clinical name for tennis elbow is lateral epicondylitis.

Tennis elbow diagram showing a detail of the damaged tendon tissue. Digital illustration.

What Causes Tennis Elbow?

Despite the name, tennis causes only about 5% of cases. Any kind of repetitive movement, like painting or using hand tools, can trigger tennis elbow.  When you repeat certain motions, forearm muscles get overused and strained.

tennis player with brace on elbow

What are the Symptoms of Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow typically causes pain and tenderness around the outside of the elbow.  Some people also feel forearm pain and have pain in the back of the hand.

When you lift, bend, or twist your arm the pain may travel down your forearm.  You may also notice a similar sensation when gripping small objects like a pen.  The arm can be stiff and difficult to extend fully.

woman with elbow pain

Pain from tennis elbow can range from mild discomfort to severe pain.  While it can be felt when your elbow is still, it is usually worse when you use your arm, especially for twisting movements. 

How Do You Treat Tennis Elbow?

Tennis elbow will typically get better without treatment, but it could take anywhere from six months to two years.  During this time, it's important to rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that caused the problem. Sometimes that is easier said than done.

In extreme instances where tennis elbow is causing severe and persistent pain, surgery may be recommended. The surgery will remove the damaged part of the tendon.

Until your tennis elbow heals, you will want to find a way to manage the pain.  Of course, you can always try pain medication, but there may be side effects.  There may be better options, such as using a TENS machine.

It's always a good idea to speak with your doctor for a personalized treatment plan.

Will a TENS Unit Help Tennis Elbow?

Yes.  A TENS (short for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) unit can help relieve many types of pain.  It works by sending gentle electronic pulses to your nerves to reduce the pain signals to the spinal cord and brain. 

Muscles will feel more relaxed and more endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, will be produced.  Your range of motion will be increased too.

What is the Best TENS Unit for Tennis Elbow?

You don't need a TENS unit specifically designed to treat tennis elbow since you can adjust the pads to target the right area.   If you want a TENS unit for tennis elbow the Beurer EM34 2-in-1 Knee & Elbow TENS Unit is a good choice.

The Beurer TENS unit comes with sleeve can be used on either your elbows or knees.  It's ergonomically designed with adjustable hook-and-loop fastening and comes with a belt clip and batteries.  You won't need any gel as it has two water contact electrodes.

While it only has one channel, it does have 25 different intensity levels. The display panel indicates if the device is powered and shows the intensity level. It is easy to operate, lightweight, and has an automatic safety shut-off.

Click here to read more reviews and check the price.

How to Use a TENS Machine for Tennis Elbow Pain

It's not difficult to use a TENS machine at home to get relief from tennis elbow pain, but there are a few important things to keep in mind to make sure you get the best results.  Let's go through the process step-by-step.

Start by wiping the skin where you plan on placing the pads to remove any sweat oil or dirt.  Check that the area is dry, then stick the pads to the skin firmly in the appropriate spots.  If you are not using a self-adhesive pad, make sure to apply a thin layer of conductive gel to the flexible rubber pad on the side that will be applied to the skin.  

Note: You won't have to worry about pad placement with the Beurer TENS device, but if you are using another TENS machine see the section below for more information on where to put the pads.  

Double check that the pads are secure then connect them to the TENS device wires.   Now you can turn the TENS unit on at the lowest setting.  You should feel a mild tingling sensation. 

For some people that may be enough, if not slowly increase the intensity to your comfort level.  It's ok to feel strong impulses, but if the muscles twitch or you feel strong pinprick sensations, reduce the intensity.

When you first start using your TENS machine, limit your sessions to 10-15 minutes at a time so your body can get used to it.  As you are ready, increase the length of each session gradually until you can use it for 30-45 minutes at a time.

At the end of your treatment, turn off the TENS unit and then detach the wires and pads.  Wipe the pads dry before storing away.  Keep the TENS machine in a dry place with its accessories.  

Where to Place the TENS pads for Tennis Elbow

If you don't have a TENS machine like the Beurer one that has  a sleeve, you need to place the electrodes in the right position to treat the pain.  It's actually much simpler than you might think.

TENS unit pad placement for tennis elbow is not an exact science.  It's best to experiment a bit to see what feels best for you.  

Try placing two electrode pads above the elbow and two below or place one larger pad directly above the elbow and one below.  You can move the pads around a bit until you find the locations that target your specific pain.

How Long Can You use a TENS unit for Tennis Elbow?

While it is recommended that you do not use a TENS unit for more than thirty minutes at a time, there is no real risk to your health, other than skin irritation.

If your skin gets irritated, take a break every twenty minutes or look into pads which are better for sensitive skin. The best answer that we can give, with regards to overuse, is to use it as much as feels comfortable.

women tennis player holding her elbow in pain

How Often Can You Use a TENS Unit for Tennis Elbow?

As we mentioned, there is no real threat to using a TENS unit for a prolonged period. This means that there is no real issue if you want to use a TENS unit multiple times throughout your day.

A TENS unit can be used as many times as you deem necessary.  If you have pain, then it is a good time to use the device.  Many TENS units are portable so you can use them on the go.

The way we see it, one of the benefits of TENS therapy for tennis elbow is that you can use it as much as you want to.  Unlike some medications, it is not habit-forming.

Is a TENS Machine Safe?

You should always consult your doctor before using any form of treatment for injury.

A TENS unit is not safe to use if you are fitted with any pacemaker or have epilepsy or a heart issue.  If you are pregnant, or believe that you may be pregnant it is important that you speak with your doctor before using one.

Don't use the TENS unit on any area if you have a rash, wound, or sore skin.  If any skin condition develops while using the device, stop use immediately, and consult your doctor.  (Note: If you have sensitive skin you could use these pads that are latex-free and non-irritating.)

RELATED: Best TENS and EMS Combo Unit Reviews

More Drug-free Remedies for Tennis Elbow Pain

TENS therapy is just one  way to help with tennis elbow pain, but there are things you can do.  Consider including these options in your tennis elbow treatment.  

Physical Therapy

woman doing an arm exercise at physical therapy

A therapist can use massage to relieve pain and stiffness, and improve blood flow to your arm. (You could also try doing massage at home with a forearm massager.)  They can also teach you you exercises that will help keep your arm mobile and strengthen your forearm muscles.

Brace or Support Band

A brace applies pressure to the muscles below the elbow to reduce pain and help you move your arm and elbow freely.  You can see the options for elbow braces here.

Cold Compress

Ice can help reduce the inflammation from tennis elbow that places pressure on the nerves that run down your forearm.  Just a few minutes several times a day as needed can make a big difference.  

You can use a ice pack specifically designed for the elbow area (like these) or something simple like a bag of frozen peas.  Be careful to protect your skin from freezing temperatures by placing a thin towel or cloth between the ice pack and your arm.

Tennis Elbow : An Overview - An infographic by the team at Tennis Elbow : An Overview

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Natalie Bell
 

Natalie was introduced to massage therapy and manual therapy after health issues of her own. She wants to share what she has learned to help others life happier lives.

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