CategoriesVagus Nerve 101

Understanding the Risks: Why TENS Units Aren’t Recommended for Vagus Nerve Stimulation

TENS Units

If you’re venturing into the world of vagus nerve stimulation, chances are you’ve encountered transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) along the way. Yet, here’s the kicker: while TENS units work wonders for some pain and nerve-related issues, they’re not the go-to for stimulating the vagus nerve. Ready to uncover why? Let’s dive right in.

First, let’s understand the vagus nerve

The vagus nerve is a vital link between the brain and body, orchestrating a symphony of functions like emotional regulation, fight-or-flight responses, digestion, and even breathing. Stimulating your vagus nerve daily strengthens and balances your nervous system and can result in powerful health benefits.

The primary access points to stimulate the vagus nerve are situated on either side of the neck, approximately 1.3 cm below the skin’s surface. Activation of these points can trigger a relaxation response. Techniques like deep, slow breathing, gargling, loud singing, and even ice bath plunges can help stimulate the vagus nerve’s healthy function. Alternatively, there are specialized devices such as Truvaga designed specifically for targeting the vagus nerve in this location.

What is a TENS unit and how does it work?

TENS units are devices designed to provide temporary pain relief by delivering mild electrical impulses through electrodes placed on the skin. These impulses travel through the nerve fibers to disrupt or block pain signals from reaching the brain.

TENS units offer a wide range of settings that control variables like how fast the electrical pulses are sent, how strong they are, and how long they last, otherwise known as frequency (pulses per second), intensity (pulse amplitude), and pulse duration (periods when the electrical current is delivered). Generally, the display screen on a TENS unit doesn’t show the technical details, like frequency, which are important to understand and set properly prior to use. Depending on the settings, you may get dramatically different physiological responses. It is important to make sure the settings are expertly adjusted under the guidance of a healthcare professional.

All TENS units come with electrodes or some sort of sticky pads. Proper electrode/pad placement is critical for any kind of electrical stimulation and requires precision. You want to hit the right spot, not only for best results, but also to avoid negative effects. TENS unit configurations and electrode placement charts vary considerably from unit to unit, making proper placement very difficult. If you put the pads too close together, for example, it can cause the electrical current to jump between the pads, leading to pain.

When contemplating a TENS unit, it’s essential to consider the dimensions of the electrode patches. Think of it like pouring water – if you use a small cup, the water might spill over, but if you use a big bucket, it spreads out more evenly. Similarly, using the right-size electrode patches helps ensure the electrical energy is spread out evenly across your skin, which can make the treatment more effective and comfortable. It’s important to ensure you are using the proper size.

Why TENS units are not a good choice for vagus nerve stimulation

One major reason why TENS units aren’t suitable for vagus nerve stimulation is that they’re not designed to be used around the neck or head[1]. The neck is a sensitive area with muscles, nerves, and blood vessels connecting to the head. Applying TENS in these zones could lead to unintended muscle contractions or send the wrong signals to your brain, potentially causing injury instead of the desired effect. 

Additionally, TENS units generate square electrical waves. In this waveform, the transition between the high and low voltage levels is immediate, which can be quite jarring and uncomfortable. On the other hand, Truvaga uses a smoother sine wave signal. Sine wave signals resemble a gentle, regular curve that flows smoothly without any abrupt changes, allowing for a gentler experience and requiring less voltage to still be effective.

Lastly, there’s just not enough good-quality scientific evidence to say whether TENS is a safe and effective method of vagus nerve stimulation. While TENS units are used for various therapeutic purposes, including pain relief and muscle stimulation, their application for vagus nerve stimulation specifically lacks robust scientific support. More research is needed to thoroughly evaluate its safety and efficacy in this context before definitive conclusions can be drawn[2].

Why consider Truvaga

Unlike other devices, Truvaga is specifically designed to safely stimulate the vagus nerve at the neck [3]. This precision ensures the stimulation is accurate and effective, removing any guesswork or discomfort.

  • Electrodes are positioned at a fixed distance, making it easy to place correctly every time.
  • The intensity range is designed to provide a safe, customized, and gentle experience.
  • Truvaga’s treatment recommendations have been backed by clinical studies, ensuring its effectiveness.

Truvaga offers a quick and efficient way to activate your vagus nerve safely. Simply place it on the side of your neck morning and night, for two minutes a day, and let it work its magic. Learn more about how Truvaga safely targets the vagus nerve to improve your well-being.


[1] Dac Teoli; Jason An. (2023) Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation.

[2] Charlotte Lillis (2018) What is a TENS unit and does it work.

[3] Nonis R, et al. Cephalalgia. Evidence of activation of vagal afferents by non-invasive vagus nerve stimulation: 017;37(13):1285-1293.