Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) for chronic low back pain

Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2001;(2):CD003008. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003008.


Background: Low back pain (LBP) affects a large proportion of the population. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) was introduced more than 30 years ago as an alternative therapy to pharmacological treatments for chronic pain. However, despite its widespread use, the effectiveness of TENS is still controversial.

Objectives: The aim of this systematic review was to determine the efficacy of TENS in the treatment of chronic LBP.

Search strategy: We searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, PEDro and the Cochrane Controlled Trials Register up to June 1, 2000.

Selection criteria: Only randomized controlled clinical trials of TENS for the treatment of patients with a clinical diagnosis of chronic LBP were included. Abstracts were excluded unless further data could be obtained from the authors.

Data collection and analysis: Two reviewers independently selected trials and extracted data using predetermined forms. Heterogeneity was tested with Cochran's Q test. A fixed effects model was used throughout for continuous variables, except where heterogeneity existed, in which case, a random effects model was used. Results are presented as weighted mean differences (WMD) with 95% confidence intervals (95% CI), where the difference between the treated and control groups was weighted by the inverse of the variance. Standardized mean differences (SMD) were calculated by dividing the difference between the treated and control by the baseline variance. SMD were used when different scales were used to measure the same concept. Dichotomous outcomes were analyzed with odds ratios.

Main results: Five trials were included, with 170 subjects randomized to the placebo group receiving sham-TENS and 251 subjects receiving active TENS (153 for conventional mode, 98 for acupuncture-like TENS). The schedule of treatments varied greatly between studies ranging from one treatment/day for two consecutive days, to three treatments/day for four weeks. There were no statistically significant differences between the active TENS group when compared to the placebo TENS group for any outcome measures. Subgroup analysis performed on TENS application and methodological quality did not demonstrate a significant statistical difference. Remaining pre-planned subgroup analysis was not conducted due to the small number of included trials and the variety of outcome measures reported.

Reviewer's conclusions: The results of the meta-analysis present no evidence to support the use of TENS in the treatment of chronic low back pain. Clinicians and researchers should consistently report the characteristics of the TENS device and the application techniques used. New trials on TENS should make use of standardized outcome measures. This meta-analysis lacked data on how TENS effectiveness is affected by four important factors: type of applications, site of application, treatment duration of TENS, optimal frequencies and intensities.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Chronic Disease
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / therapy*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation*