Is TENS purely a placebo effect? A controlled study on chronic low back pain

Pain. 1993 Jul;54(1):99-106. doi: 10.1016/0304-3959(93)90104-W.


Although high-frequency low-intensity transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation (TENS) has been extensively used to relieve low back pain, experimental studies of its effectiveness have yielded contradictory findings mainly due to methodological problems in pain evaluation and placebo control. In the present study, separate visual analog scales (VAS) were used to measure the sensory-discriminative and motivational-affective components of low back pain. Forty-two subjects were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: TENS, placebo-TENS, and no treatment (control). In order to measure the short-term effect of TENS, VAS pain ratings were taken before and after each treatment session. Also, to measure long-term effects, patients rated their pain at home every 2 h throughout a 3-day period before and 1 week, 3 months and 6 months after the treatment sessions. In comparing the pain evaluations made immediately before and after each treatment session, TENS and placebo-TENS significantly reduced both the intensity and unpleasantness of chronic low back pain. TENS was significantly more efficient than placebo-TENS in reducing pain intensity but not pain unpleasantness. TENS also produced a significant additive effect over repetitive treatment sessions for pain intensity and relative pain unpleasantness. This additive effect was not found for placebo-TENS. When evaluated at home, pain intensity was significantly reduced more by TENS than placebo-TENS 1 week after the end of treatment, but not 3 months and 6 months later. At home evaluation of pain unpleasantness in the TENS group was never different from the placebo-TENS group.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial
  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Low Back Pain / physiopathology
  • Low Back Pain / psychology
  • Low Back Pain / therapy*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Motivation
  • Pain Measurement
  • Placebo Effect
  • Transcutaneous Electric Nerve Stimulation*