This study evaluated the effects of varying frequency, intensity and stimulation site, of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) in an experimental model of pain. In a double-blind design 240 volunteers were randomised to one of six experimental TENS groups, a sham TENS or control (n=30 per group; gender balanced). Two TENS frequencies (110 or 4 Hz) and two intensities (strong but comfortable or highest tolerable) at a fixed pulse duration (200 micros) were applied at three sites relative to the measurement site (segmentally, extrasegmentally or a combination of these), for 30 min. Pressure pain thresholds (PPT) were measured using a pressure algometer, in the first dorsal interosseous muscle, every 10 min, during stimulation and for a further 30 min. The high frequency, high intensity segmental, and combined stimulation groups, showed rapid onset and significant hypoalgesic effects. This effect was sustained for 20 min post-stimulation in the high frequency segmental group. All other TENS intervention groups showed hypoalgesic responses similar to the sham TENS group, and none of these groups reached a clinically significant hypoalgesic level.
Conclusions: The role of TENS frequency, intensity and site are pivotal to achieving optimal hypoalgesic effects, during and after stimulation. Clinical applications of these parameter combinations require further investigations.