Why a TENS Unit May Not Be Safe For Someone With Ankylosing Spondylitis



Patients with Ankylosing Spondylitis often seek alternative means of

alleviating pain other than use of drugs. One modality sometimes used,

even recommended by certain health care providers, might be the TENS

unit (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation). This is a small battery-

operated (if a portable unit) device that is commonly used as a back pain

treatment. It utilizes low voltage electric currents to relieve pain.

Chiropractors or physical therapists might recommend the use of a TENS

unit for an Ankylosing Spondylitis patient, not realizing the unique

dangers that this could pose.


The one thing that all AS patients are trying to avoid is the fusing of their

spine. This is the biggest fear of AS patients. The resulting “bamboo spine”

prevents any movement, interfering with quality of life and poses serious

risks for fractures. The fusing occurs as a result of new bone formation that connects the vertebrae together.


There have been case reports of success in using electrical currents to stimulate bone growth since 1841, but it was in the 1950’s when this method of treatment really began to progress. Investigators all over the world began to study the effects of electricity on bone and cartilage. By 1976, at least 119 articles appeared in world literature outlining the effects of electricity on bone growth. Now, a variety of electrical stimulation devices have been developed, including the TENS unit. These electrical stimulators, along with bone growth stimulators, have been used specifically for their efficacy in spinal fusion and fusing of fractures.



There are documented cases where a TENS unit was used to speed up the fusing of fractures and to stimulate new bone formation. In one particular case, a 42 year old woman had a fractured ankle with delayed healing. Her physical therapist used a TENS unit over a period of 6 weeks to stimulate enough bone growth to fuse the fracture together. The electrical stimulation was effective for this purpose. They were following the instructions mentioned in an article in the June 6 1994 edition of ADVANCE on the uses of TENS for bone healing and osteogenesis (creation of new bone).


Similarly, when someone undergoes extensive back surgery, such as the fusing of certain vertebrae, bone fragments are often inserted in the area to be fused, or maybe even a bone paste. The paste or fragments are then encouraged to grow together and fuse by the use of an “electrical bone growth stimulator”. These devices use the same principals as the TENS unit. They deliver electrical currents, which have the effect of encouraging new bone growth.


The TENS unit and the Bone Growth Stimulators are used for extended periods of time each day for several weeks when their purpose is to stimulate the growth of bone. While it is true that normally the TENS unit is only used for 15 or 20 minute sessions when its purpose is merely pain relief, it is not known the effect of long-term use of a TENS unit, especially when it is always applied in the same area (for instance, the back). Why choose a method of pain relief that even has the potential for encouraging bone fusion, when there are far more effective methods of pain relief that do not carry risks? Learn about a non-drug powerful pain relief option HERE!