The Initial Problem
One of the reasons for my regular visits to my local clinic these days is a suspected impinged nerve somewhere in my neck area that is causing me a certain amount of difficulty with my left arm and hand in general, and more specifically, with the thumb and now the forefinger on the left hand. With the arm, the discomfort is mainly of a constant buzzing nature, akin to that which you might experience if you were to lay too long on your arm at one time, or that sleepy feeling your arm might hang onto a little after the rest of your body has agreed to wake up for the day which lays ahead. A nuisance for sure, but not really anything to write home about…most of the time. At certain other times, however, most commonly when I’m sleeping, the buzzing becomes a rather incredible pain that manages to wake me up and gets me occupied with trying to find a way to lay the arm where the pain will cease, or at least let up enough that I can get back to sleep. Most of the time, I’m successful.
The thumb, and now recently, the forefinger, are a slightly different story. They are now experiencing prolonged periods of numbness, and thankfully only on rare occasions, a loss of strength, which in the case of these up-until-now loyal appendages, usually means gripping power. Trying to turn the knob on my baseboard heating unit is becoming enough of a problem that I’m rapidly convincing myself that I like it when I can see my breath in my living room. Needless to say, the fact that whatever the damage is, it seems to be progressing, is just a little bit worrisome. Call me spoiled, but I’ve grown accustomed to having both of my perfectly-sculpted arms working, well…perfectly (don’t miss the exaggerated eye-roll please). Oh, and did I mention, the day I forgot the pain meds the doctor has me on, I went through a 24-hour period almost incapacitated before I realized that I had missed them. So apparently, some of what I perceive as the lack of pain, has to do with all the meds I’m on, and that sort of brings me to the point of this post (I heard those cries of “Finally!”).
The Additional Problem
If you have been following any of my earlier posts, you might be familiar with the fact that I’ve been pretty much on my own since I was about 12-13 years old. You might also be aware that as the result of working from that age with a travelling carnival (Royal American Shows), I always had access to far more money than any child of that age, lacking parental supervision, should ever have at his/her disposal. As a result, I made a LOT of bad choices in my life and went down a lot of roads from which it took me considerable time to find my way back to anything resembling a reasonable life. There were many times I did find my way back, only to take another wrong turn at another time, and ended up having to repeat the same process over and over again. Maybe everyone has to go through this type of thing in their life, or maybe I really am just dumber than most, but the fact is, if there was a wrong turn to be made, a wrong person to put my faith in, a wrong system to believe in, and if there was a lineup for any of these things, I would never have seen any of you there, because I would have been at the front of the line, looking straight ahead, hardly able to wait another second to jump in and ruin my life yet again. Lol. And the craziest thing of it all, is that I survived it. But not without a few scars, and leftovers that I have to always be on the lookout for. My doctor, fortunately for me, knows about several of these things that are traps for me, and so when she made a suggestion to me one day about a month ago, it was with the idea of avoiding one of those traps that she made it.
Without getting into the gory details, let’s just say it’s always in my best interest if I can avoid using narcotics anytime, for anything. Even if the pain I’m experiencing might reasonably call for limited use of narcotics, it’s just not the right road for me to follow. Way too much chance that it’ll get out of hand, or that I’ll mess things up in any number of ways. So, when the pain from this nerve problem started getting really bad, and it was still a couple months before I could get in for the next stage in assessing the damage or whatever (some scans), what my doctor (Nurse Practitioner actually) suggested was a device known as a TENS Machine. The name for the device, TENS, is an acronym, standing for “transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation”, and what the device does is transmit tiny electrical impulses to the body, usually over the area in which the pain is being experienced, or in areas thought to be related to the area where the pain is being experienced.
According to some recent studies, as much as 50% of the respondents reported excellent results in the management of pain by using the device either with no pain meds, or reduced amounts of pain meds. Though that’s only half of the study population, that’s huge when you consider that many of those people are no longer using narcotics to manage their pain, and the machine they are now using instead allows them to treat themselves right at the moment that the pain occurs, with no dangers of overdose or addiction, and even additional benefits that are now being explored in the area of physiotherapy and of course, simple work-out techniques equivalent to the benefits one could attain by visiting a gym.
How TENS Machines Work
The TENS machine has controls that allow you to adjust to a certain degree, the frequency of the pulses, as well as the intensity. Though it is still in the realm of theory, it is thought by some researchers that when the machine is sending higher-frequency pulses into the body (this normal rate of use would be between 90-130 Hz), these pulses interfere with the bodies pain impulses, and prevent them from reaching the brain. Having to do with the Gate Theory of Pain, and being far too lengthy to explain in detail here, it basically states that the higher-frequency pulses from the machine travel much faster than the slow-moving pain impulses from the body which can’t find an opening in the nerve pathway that is being flooded with the fast-moving non-pain-related pulses from the TENS machine.
On the other side of things, researchers believe that when the user adjusts the TENS machine to emit low pulses (2-5 Hz) it stimulates the body to make its own pain-easing chemicals called endorphins. These act a bit like morphine to block pain signals.¹
Who Uses TENS Machines
In the various information I read when I was researching the TENS device before I purchased it, I found most often, two groups of people mentioned as those who would most benefit from the convenience of having one of the machines in their homes. Before we get into those specifics, however, please note the following: In all the literature I read, it was advised that before committing to a purchase of this nature, a wise person would always seek first the advice of their family physician as to whether the TENS machine was the correct route to go for the ailment in question in that person’s specific case. There are things that have to be considered of a medical nature, and this is always best done by your doctor, as some of them can lead to quite serious consequences.
Now, assuming your doctor has given you the go-ahead to try out this device as a pain-management strategy, then it seems likely that your chances of being helped are at least somewhat increased if you should fall into one of the two following categories. First, these machines are apparently becoming somewhat popular with women who are using them to deal with the pain associated with labor. Many women have claimed great results in this area, and that is not even where the good news stops. In addition to the pain relief, I have found comments on both Canadian and British TENS sites mentioning that women who wish to use the device during labor should also ask their medical practitioner about getting a list of places that rent the machines for just this purpose, thus alleviating the financial pain, as well as the physical.
The second group of people that I found mentioned very often were those suffering from “musculoskeletal pain, such as chronic (long-term) back pain or knee joint arthritis²”. Since this classification would include muscles, nerves, and joints, it seems likely that this is where my problem lies. Of course, we don’t really know yet, and that’s why I have other tests to undergo. What I do know is that I appear to be among the 50% or so that seems to derive at least some benefit from the treatments, first of all in the immediate relief from the pain when it is really bad, and I apply the machine rather than take a pain-killer, and second, in the extra ease I find in doing the exercises that I do regularly in an effort to correct whatever the problem is in the first place.
Now I have no way of swearing that the improvement I’m feeling is related to the TENS machine, and not the regular exercise, or the pain-meds that I am still taking (my doctor is reducing them, but it can’t all be done at once), or for that matter, it could be a combination of everything. But I do know for certain that applying the TENS machine when I’m really sore does bring immediate relief, and that means I’m not taking extra pain-killers at those times, so that’s a definite plus. And the TENS machine can be used as often as needed with no side-effects, no addiction worries, and it’s probably good for toning the muscles, a major plus at my age. So while it may not be the answer for everyone, if you are at all like me, and you are always looking for ways to stay away from ingesting any more pills than is absolutely necessary, then this little machine might just be one more thing to consider the next time you find yourself with one of the major-type aches or pains that just keeps hanging on. If you don’t feel like popping back any more pills, and if avoiding surgery is high on your list, the TENS machine is a safe, non-invasive, non-addictive, pain-management strategy that you might just want to consider. Of course, I’ll just be praying for you that you never have to make that choice at all, and hoping that I’ll see you here when I’m ready with that next post. Until then…