Background: Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a popular pain treatment modality but its effectiveness in chronic pain management is unknown. This review is an update of the original Cochrane review published in Issue 3, 2001.
Objectives: To evaluate the effectiveness of TENS in chronic pain.
Search strategy: The Cochrane Library, EMBASE, MEDLINE and CINAHL were searched. Reference lists from retrieved reports and reviews were examined. Date of the most recent search: April 2008.
Selection criteria: RCTs were eligible if they compared active TENS versus sham TENS controls; active TENS versus 'no treatment' controls; or active TENS versus active TENS controls (e.g. High Frequency TENS (HFTENS) versus Low Frequency TENS (LFTENS)). Studies of chronic pain for three months or more which included subjective outcome measures for pain intensity or relief were eligible for evaluation. No restrictions were made to language or sample size. Abstracts, letters, or unpublished studies, and studies of TENS in angina, headache, migraine, dysmenorrhoea and cancer-related pain were excluded.
Data collection and analysis: Data were extracted and summarised on the following items: patients and details of pain condition, treatments, study duration, design, methods, subjective pain outcome measures, methodological quality, results for pain outcome measures and adverse effects, and conclusions by authors of the studies. Extracted data and methodological quality of studies were confirmed by the review authors.
Main results: Of 124 studies identified from the searches, 99 did not fulfil pre-defined entry criteria. Twenty-five RCTs involving 1281 participants were evaluated. Included studies varied in design, analgesic outcomes, chronic pain conditions, TENS treatments and methodological quality. The reporting of methods and results for analgesic outcomes were inconsistent across studies and generally poor. Meta-analysis was not possible. Overall in 13 of 22 inactive control studies, there was a positive analgesic outcome in favour of active TENS treatments. For multiple dose treatment comparison studies, eight of fifteen were considered to be in favour of the active TENS treatments. Seven of the nine active controlled studies found no difference in analgesic efficacy between High Frequency (HF) TENS and Low Frequency (LF) TENS.
Authors' conclusions: Since the last version of this review, new relevant studies have not provided additional information to change the conclusions. Published literature on the subject lacks the methodological rigour or robust reporting needed to make confident assessments of the role of TENS in chronic pain management. Large multi-centre RCTs of TENS in chronic pain are still needed.