Updated on January 13, 2021 by Lyric Fergusson
My first experience with a TENS unit happened at a physical therapist’s office after I injured my leg. Pain medication made me groggy and didn’t help enough, so the pain relief I got from the TENS unit was a happy surprise. Eventually, I stopped going to PT but was so glad to discover I could get drugless pain relief at home.
I have used TENS (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) and EMS (Electrical Muscle Stimulation) at home for chronic back pain and when old injuries to my leg and shoulder act up. Here are my picks for the top seven TENS units:
Best TENS Units
(Best value — $)
Why it’s great: Dual channel means you can treat two parts of your body with two different modes simultaneously. You could program channel A with an Acupuncture mode for your back and channel B with more intense settings for an arm or leg. The unit becomes fully charged in an hour, giving you up to 10 hours of continuous use. There are 16 easy-to-use, pre-programmed modes under six massage categories. Unlike other similar products, you don’t need to set up the pulse frequency and duration yourself. It is all programmed for you.
The electrodes’ professional-style pin connections provide a more consistent current flow than the button connectors on most home TENS units. The eight 2” x 2” pads and eight larger 2″ x 4″ pads for larger muscles like in your lower back are all the upgraded American Gel pads that provide better sticking power, more uses, and easy cleanup. You can use them up to 45 times before replacing them rather than the typical 30 times with others. A pocket-sized unit, it has a rechargeable lithium-ion battery with a USB charger and wall adaptor.
For the same unit with a family-sized pack of pads(16 2″ x 2″ pads and 8 2″ x 4″ pads), look at Auvon Family.
Keep in mind: All the modes are pre-programmed, so you can’t tinker with the settings.
Good for: People who want to work on two body parts at once and don’t care about fiddling with programming.
(Most applications — $$$)
Why it’s great: It’s wireless! The system is small and portable, but you don’t need to carry it around to use it. This 2 in 1 design combines a TENS or Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation unit with an EMS or Electrical Muscle Stimulator. The unit offers 14 pre-programmed settings, including seven pain relief, one arthritis, and six muscle conditioning modes within the twin system. An excellent alternative to pain medication, the wearable iReliev system sets up easily, and the low- voltage TENS pulses stimulate nerves to block pain signals to the brain. The set includes two pods and reusable self-stick electrodes that attach to your body and has 8 TENS settings. You can purchase extra pods and run four pods at once. The rechargeable lithium battery makes this ideal for travel.
The TENS unit is combined with an EMS unit for neuromuscular electric stimulation to build or rebuild muscle strength. As a rehabilitation tool, you can use EMS to warm your muscles up before doing therapeutic exercises. You also can rebuild lost muscle. Use the EMS for athletic warmup and strength training, too. There are six modes or settings to the EMS unit. You can set at 5-minute intervals.
This system includes a remote hand control, two wireless pods, two self-adhesive reusable electrodes, a rechargeable lithium-ion battery plus a USB/AC adaptor, all in a handy carrying case.
Keep in mind: It may take a few minutes to figure out the controls.
Good for: People who want both pain relief from the TENS application and muscle stimulation from the EMS unit.
(Best gift — $$)
Why it’s great: The slim, compact TENS/EMS machine in a sleek black and gold finish comes with an elegant leather pouch for travel. It also makes a handsome gift. The unit comes pre-charged, so you can go right to work on sore muscles. Two channels can be set up with your choices from 24 different massage style settings. For a deep professional massage, try the highest professional intensity setting. This machine has more power than others.
It comes with 12 large reusable electrode pads. Use the included pressure point chart to target your treatment. The USB charger charges the unit to full capacity in only 30 minutes.
Keep in mind: This very compact TENS unit comes with a matching compact (small) screen.
Good for: This luxury design with a leather pouch makes a great gift.
(Most user-friendly — $)
Why it’s great: I love the user-friendly control panel with a large, backlit, easy to see, LCD display, and understandable labels for the different modes. It shows modes for Neck, Shoulder, Elbow, etc., and Acu(for acupressure level), Knead, Tap, Random, and others. The battery life indicator helps keep track of when you will need to recharge.
The package includes a treatment points chart, which is helpful. There are 24 massage modes in all and ten reusable stick-on electrode pads. The rechargeable battery lasts for days.
It comes with a great protective case for the controller and its screen. If you’re like me and often drop the controller, the snap-together case protects the screen.
Keep in mind: if you are used to using a TEMS with standard labels, you may have to experiment to figure out which settings you like. The button labeled shoulder might be the best one for your calf muscles, for example.
Good for: Less tech-savvy People.
(Best accessories — $$)
Why it’s great: This unit comes with great accessories you don’t get with other units. The rechargeable TENS Massager comes with reflexology shoes and a fat burner belt. The reflexology shoes (sandals) work by stimulating acupressure points (nerve endings) in your feet that connect to other parts of the body. Acupressure sandals massage the feet to relieve pain in the body and even has emotional health benefits. The belt increases your core temperature while you wear it to help reduce your waist size.
The machine has 24 pre-programmed massage modes like tapping, acupuncture, deep tissue, foot, cupping, combo, and adjustable and combines TENS and PMS devices for pain relief and muscle development. The rechargeable lithium battery runs for up to 20 hours. The dual output feature allows you to target two parts of your body or let two people use the device at once. Adjustable timer included.
Keep in mind: You may not use both accessories, but even using one makes this a great value.
Good for: People who want the bonus of reflexology for pain relief or the belt for reducing waist size.
(Best for athletes — $$$)
Why it’s great: It’s great for athletes (even weekend athletes). You can warm your muscles up before a tennis match or jog in the park to prevent injury and use the device to unknot muscles afterward. This smart device guides you through pain management and recovery after a workout or especially if you do get injured.
The increased blood flow speeds up recovery and improves performance. Supplement your regular workouts to improve muscle strength. There are 15 preset programs for muscle stimulation and pain relief. The TENS programs sink to your smartphone and track your pain and keep track of improvement as you work.
Completely portable and self-contained, the product comes with two sets of electrode pads, a pre-charged pod, and a USB charger—everything in a nice carrying case.
Keep in mind: The interactive programs run through your smartphone as an Apple watch does.
Good for: Athletes coming back from injury or just looking for another way to improve.
(Best LCD Screen — $)
Why it’s great: The best feature on this TENS unit is the large LCD screen that makes it easy for older eyes to read. The programming is also easy to decipher with six main massage modes, Acupuncture, Tapping, Deep Tissue Massage, Foot, Cupping, and Combo. Each of these modes has four-speed option settings. Choose your mode, choose your speed option, and set the timer for between 10 and 60 minutes. An internal lithium battery is rechargeable and provides power for about 20 hours. Two people can use the unit at once with the A-B output feature. Each output runs independently
Keep in mind: The timer limit is 60 minutes, so you need to reset hourly when you wear the unit for an extended period.
Good for: Older people or people with poor eyesight that want to see the screen clearly and want simple programming options.
I suggest buying this electrode gel to prolong the life of the electrode pads and increase their conductivity. You just apply a small dab (about pea-size) to the pads, wait about ten minutes and apply them to your skin. Have the pads attached to the cables before applying the gel. Otherwise, things can get messy.
FAQs about best TENS units
1. How Do TENS units block pain?
A patient attaches electrodes to the skin with adhesive pads. The electrical impulses stimulate the nerves, encouraging them to release endorphins, which are your body’s natural pain blockers. Some experts also think that the pulses cause pain gateways in the spinal cord to close.
2. Is TENS treatment safe?
TENS units are safe for most people if used as directed. The electrical impulses do cause a tingling sensation that makes some people uncomfortable. The only other issue is the adhesive. People with allergies to adhesives could have problems, but there are hypoallergenic pads available.
3. How often can you use a TENS unit?
Most experts agree that you can safely take treatment two or three times a day, but you are the best judge of what helps with your pain.
4. What’s the difference between TENS and EMS?
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, and EMS for Electrical Muscle Stimulator (same as PMS, Power Muscle Stimulator). The TENS pulses to stimulate nerves so that endorphins are released in the body to combat pain. The EMS or PMS electrically stimulate muscles to warm them up before exercise or to build them up.
5. What’s the difference between EMS and PMS?
These are the same thing with two different names. EMS stands for Electrical Muscle Stimulator and PMS, Powered Muscle Stimulator. The move to using power rather than electrical is recent. Both improve muscle condition and performance.
Anyone with chronic pain conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome, sciatica, tendonitis, or fibromyalgia, can treat their pain without drugs with a home-use TENS unit. You can get back to more of your daily routine. Try different settings and lengths of time to find the practice that helps the most.
If you are active in sports or want to improve muscle strength, make sure to choose a unit with EMS (or PMS) capabilities. These units also help with things like muscle spasms and restless leg syndrome. You can warm your muscles up before exercise and prevent injuries during your golf or softball game and help relax the muscles when done.
Be sure to choose a TENS/EMS unit that fits your technology ability levels. Some are simpler to operate than others.