TENS is a common acronym for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. This is an increasingly popular therapy or treatment that uses low-voltage electrical current to stimulate the nerves of the body. The stimulation is done through the use of small portable units, known as a medical TENS or EMS TENS units, that run on a nine-volt battery and a series of two to four disposable, sticky electrodes that are placed on the skin. One of the uses of TENS is to treat the symptoms of temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ).
Temporomandibular joint disorder is a blanket term that covers any one of a number of disorders of the joint of the lower jaw that connects the jaw to the skull. Because this joint is the most complex in the body and several nerve and sinus systems are located nearby, it is prone to being affected to disorders that cause a wide range of symptoms. Many TMJ cases are caused by conditions that can affect any joint: arthritis, trauma, dislocation, neoplasia, ankylosis or developmental disorders. The difference between TMJ and other joint disorders is that the symptoms of TMJ can be more numerous and more serious, affecting seemingly unrelated parts of the body.
The symptoms of TMJ are due to the one of several components being affected: nerves, muscles, ligaments, tendons, bone, teeth or connective tissue. The most frequently experienced symptom is pain. The pain can radiate to the face, neck, shoulders, back and even further down the body. In some, the pain is like a dull ache, but others experience it as sharp, stinging and intense. Other symptoms include the following:
• Difficulty chewing
• Popping, clicking or grating when moving the jaw
• Hearing loss
TENS for Pain
No standard cure or standard treatment for the symptoms of TMJ exists. Doctors try to correct the disorder of the jaw, but in many cases, it appears to be functioning completely normally. In these cases, all that can be done is treat the symptoms it causes. When pain is a cause, it can disrupt daily activities and can greatly reduce quality of life.
The most common treatment for pain is through analgesic medications. However, over-the-counter medications are not strong enough to alleviate the pain and prescription pain killers can be highly addictive and cause many side effects of their own. In order to reduce the need for opiate medications, alternative treatments have been tested by the medical community for the treatment of chronic musculoskeletal pain. TENS through the use of an electronic stimulator is one such treatment.
Medical TENS has shown that it can be very effective for treating neck pain, one of the most common sites of pain caused by TMJ. High and low frequency TENS may activate the same opiod receptors in the nervous system that are activated by opiate medications. The electricity also stimulates the nerves in such a way so as to decrease the transmission of the signals that register as pain in the brain. In addition, the electricity from TENS has shown to release serotonin and activate serotonin receptors, which can alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with chronic pain.