How to Use a Tens Unit for Shoulder Pain: Fast and Natural Pain Relief

A woman's back with red over her right shoulder to indicate that she needs to learn how to use a tens unit for shoulder pain

The shoulder is an incredible and moveable joint with three different bones, including the collarbone, shoulder blade, and upper arm. Also, the shoulder includes three different joints with a whole lot of soft tissue. Therefore, the shoulder is a prime spot for pain, leading many to wonder how to use a TENS unit for shoulder pain.

A TENS unit is short for transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, and it is a drug-free and non-invasive way to treat shoulder pain.

Before you get started, however, there are a few tips to using your TENS unit effectively to bring about the most pain relief.

How Can a TENS Unit Help?

A TENS unit that can be used to relieve shoulder pain

A TENS unit is an increasingly popular way to handle pain.

The unit delivers an electrical pulse that disrupts the pain signals that go from a sore or injured area to the brain.

The TENS unit delivers a low-voltage electric current across the skin.

Lead wires deliver this current via the electrodes that stick to your skin, and the pads stimulate the nerves under your skin, disrupting the pain signal to the brain.

Furthermore, you can set your TENS unit to different levels and bursts.

You might prefer a steady stream of current that you can adjust up or down in intensity.

Your other option is bursts of varying degrees and intensities.

Channels and Pads

There is more than one type of TENS unit.

First, there are units with two electrode pads while other units have a total of four.

The pads are in groups of two, and they work together on a channel.

You will find some configurations where the pad placement is stacked one on top of the other. On the other hand, some pain requires the pads to be across from one another.

Your pad placement options include vertical, horizontal, and angled.

Where Does It Hurt?

A person getting a shoulder massage to ease pain

There are several causes of shoulder pain.

Sometimes the pain is a direct result of an injury or acute overuse.

Other times the pain is all over and a result of general overuse or chronic pain because of a past injury.

Whatever the reason behind the pain, it is necessary to handle the pain because the shoulder joint is critical to most everyday tasks.

Before you begin using a TENS unit to disrupt and relieve the pain, it is vital to notice its location.

From there, you can decide how to place the pads to relieve the pain so you can get on with your life.

Related Read: Exercises to Relieve Neck and Shoulder Pain

How to use a TENS unit for shoulder pain based on the location of pain or injury

Before using a TENS unit, you want to evaluate the location of your shoulder pain.

Once you determine the area that gives you the most pain, you can select the best placement of the pads. Where you place the pads depends on the location of the pain and the type of injury.

Also, you might be working to achieve pain relief, healing an injury, or rehabbing a muscle.

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Rotator cuff pain or injury

If you have a rotator cuff tear, you have damage to the muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint.

Damage causes tremendous pain and also reduces the range of motion. Also, those with this type of injury are often in jobs or sports that require overhead activity.

For pain related to the rotator cuff, place the electrode pads on both the front and back of the shoulder.

Rotator cuff injures cause pain deep within the shoulder, so to disrupt the pain signal, you may have to adjust the exact location of the pads and adjust the intensity of the pulse.

If you picture your shoulder joint like a diamond, you can place the pads of the TENS unit around the rotator cuff.

Your first channel stacks with the top point being just over the top of the shoulder curve and the bottom end below surrounding the rotator cuff. Then the second channel creates the diamond point on both the left and right of the rotator cuff.


Tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon near the top of the shoulder’s joint.

Usually, the pain becomes worse with use, which is why shoulder pain is such a challenge. It is difficult to exist with limits on shoulder use.

Tendons work like cords, and they connect parts of the shoulder’s muscles tother. When inflammation occurs, pain is a result.

Also, tendonitis often goes along with other shoulder damage, especially rotator cuff injuries.

If your tendonitis is due to a specific injury, follow the placement of the TENS unit pads according to either the injury or the pain created by the injury.

For instance, if the tendonitis is due to the rotator cuff, follow the instructions for placement for that injury.

If the tendonitis is more general, use the location of the pain and follow the guides discussed below for the pain area.


Shoulder bursitis is the inflammation of the shoulder bursae, a sack of fluid that reduces friction between joint bones.

When bursitis becomes inflamed, pain is often evident outside of the shoulder and spread down the arm.

Just like with the rotator cuff tens unit pad placement, you want to do the same with bursitis.

However, depending on where the pain is, you want to surround the pain with the diamond shape of the pad’s placement.

Dislocated joint

A shoulder dislocation is an injury when the upper arm comes out of the joint with the socket of the shoulder’s blade. However, you can also dislocate the collarbone from the shoulder blade, as well.

In either case, you will have a tremendous amount of soft tissue swelling and possible tearing.

Because of the pain, you can expect healing and physical therapy. It is necessary to understand how to use a tens unit for shoulder pain to feel better quickest.

In the case of dislocation, physical therapy is likely a part of your treatment plan, as it is with most other serious injuries.

Your physical therapist is likely to teach you exactly where to place the tens unit pads to help with pain and recovery after a shoulder dislocation.

However, remember you can follow the pain to determine the best placement of the pads.

Shoulder and neck pain

If you find the pain goes from your shoulder up to your neck, you can address both pain points simultaneously.

However, you will want to use a TENS unit with four pads.

First, stack the pads horizontally with the same-channel pads on either side of the spine. Have the lower pads at the top of the shoulders closer to the spine, with the upper pads up on the neck and either side of the spine.

You can also try switching to a vertical position for the pads and crisscrossing the channels to see if that brings more relief because crossing channels increases the stimulation.

This pad positioning is also helpful for chronic cervical spine pain.

However, if the pain is on only one side, the same stacking as described above is helpful, but you only need to use one channel with two pads.

Shoulder and upper arm pain

You can seek relief with either a two or four-pad TENS unit for pain in the upper arm and shoulder.

Keep the pads two inches apart and place them stacked from the upper arm to the top of the arm near the shoulder.

General stiffness and discomfort

If your shoulders are stiff on both sides, stack the pads angled on each shoulder. If you keep the channels stacked together, you can deliver different levels of pain relief to each side, if necessary.

For pain originating from the trapezius, the triangular muscle from the back of the neck to the shoulder blade, you can use three pads for pain relief.

You can buy separate pads where both lead wires go into one longer pad. Take the longer pad wired to one channel and place it on the back of the shoulder.

The two pads on the other channel should go to the side of the spine, both at the bottom of the neck and the other a few inches below.

Remember, your goal is to surround the pain.

How to Use a TENS Unit for Shoulder Pain Step by Step

A diagram of the shoulder to help you learn how to use a tens unit for shoulder pain

Now that you figured out the exact location of your pain and evaluated the reason for the shoulder pain, you can attach the pads to the correct area.

When you turn the unit on, be sure to begin with the lowest setting.

As you become used to the buzzing sensation, you can slowly raise the setting until you feel relief.

You may notice that some areas are more sensitive than others, and some areas of pain cannot handle as much stimulation as others.

Therefore, do not assume a level you might use successfully elsewhere on your body to work with shoulder pain. Treat each time you turn on your TENS unit as if you are relearning the level you need.

If you notice the tingling turns to pain, turn the unit down.

Also, you may notice you become adjusted to the current level, which is expected, so you can slowly turn it up higher.

Try to remember the setting for the particular area you seek pain relief.

While you do not want to jump right back into that level for your next session, it is helpful to know what level gave you relief.

Related Read: 10 Common Causes of Shoulder Pain and Ways to Treat Them

Not over there

A couple of essential tips for TENS unit pads include not placing the pads directly over the joint because the sticky part of the pad can deteriorate when moving the joint.

Do not let them touch. However, do not place them too far from one another. The pads need to be at least an inch apart.

The closer the pads, the stronger the sensation.

Also, avoid placing a TENS unit pad on your head, throat, over a wound, or directly on your spine.

Furthermore, you should not use the TENS unit while you are bathing or swimming.

It may seem like wearing a TENS unit while sleeping is a good idea, but if you shift at night, you could move the pads.

Also, the pads should either be off after 20 minutes of use or their placement adjusted.

Road to Recovery

As with most injuries and aches and pains, recovery takes time.

However, you can decrease your discomfort if you know how to use a TENS unit for shoulder pain.

A TENS unit delivers an electric current across the skin, which disrupts the pain message from your body to your mind.

The unit has wires connected to pads that deliver this current, and the pad’s placement is critical for maximum relief.

First, consider the location of the pain and the injury itself.

Knowing this information helps determine where the pads ought to go.

Also, it is normal to have generalized shoulder pain from overuse or even sleeping poorly without having an underlying medical shoulder condition.

In either case, the pain tells you the location of the pads, and as long as you follow some basic guidelines, you can help manage your pain naturally.

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