How Do I Use A TENS Unit To Stimulate Lactation?
(April 13th, 2016)
Getting lactation started without the benefit of a recent pregnancy is difficult, in that it requires your actively stimulating and “expressing” your breasts for ten to fifteen minutes each, at least every 3-4 hours, throughout the 24-hour day. This expressing can be either suckling by a partner’s mouth, manual expression with your or your partner’s hands, or pumping with a breast pump. If your work schedule keeps you from finding the time to express your breasts during the day by any of these techniques, your breasts will be slower in responding and it will require a longer time to lactate.
A fourth method of breast expression is the use of a TENS Unit, which stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation (which basically means the unit stimulates your breast and nipple nerves through the skin of your breasts). It is a medical device that produces a very low electrical micro-current that flows from one electrode (pad) of each channel on the TENS unit to the other electrode of the same channel. Some TENS Units have only two electrodes (single channel) while others may have four electrodes (two pairs – two channels) or three or four channels. Two channels would be a better choice because it could be applied to both breasts and used simultaneously. These electrodes are placed a small distance apart on your breast areola. The TENS unit relies on the surface of your skin as the conductor of that electrical current, to complete a tiny circuit. You often cannot feel that electrical current… you can only feel your nerves reacting to it.
The original purpose of using the TENS Unit is to stimulate the nerves in your body to “hide” pain such as lower back pain, etc. In this case, it is used to stimulate the nerves of your breast... mostly nerves in your nipple area, which promote the release of prolactin by your Pituitary Gland (in your brain). That induces growth and development of acini tissues in your breasts and leads to lactation.
Everyone should be concerned about the effects that any electrical device has on their heart. If you are wearing a pacemaker, you should not use a TENS Unit without discussing it with your doctor first. The following is what Dr. Jim Bowman says about the safe use of a TENS Unit on your breasts:
“ The amperage of the current is what is critical in triggering heart arrhythmias. TENS units have an extremely small micro amperage current and it would be very unlikely for one to trigger an arrhythmia. Some of them can run for a week on a watch battery. TENS units generate a high frequency alternating waveform. It tends to be very non-penetrating, running superficially in the skin and it disperses in the tissues rapidly. It is quite effective in triggering nerve endings. Depolarizing the heart would not be very likely with this high frequency. Defibrillators use either a direct current or a low frequency alternating sine wave current. They are of course, very effective at depolarizing the heart. If you have an implanted pacemaker or defibrillator do not use a TENS unit in this fashion. Each channel of a TENS unit connects to two pads. The current travels between these pads. It would be best to use 2 pads (one channel) on each breast rather than having one pad on each breast with the current traveling through the chest between the breasts. Using two channels should be very safe. “ (personal communication with Dr. Bowman)
The idea is for the pads to be attached to your breasts before you get dressed. They can be used inside your bra (if you wear one) or simply worn under your outer clothing. The control unit can slip into your bra between your breasts, hang from a cord around your neck, clip to your belt or slip into your pocket. It makes no vibrations or noise, and can be running while you are working at your desk, in a board meeting, or having lunch with your friends. You merely turn it on when you want it to function and turn it off when you are finished with it.
The intent of using this unit is not to replace your partner’s oral expression or your manual expression of your breasts, or your pumping, but to substitute in their place when you are not able to take time away from work to suckle, express or pump. More than that, however, it can also be used all day long if you are not able to suckle, express or pump, for about fifteen minutes every two hours.
When you place the TENS Unit on your breasts, use the two wires from one channel of the TENS unit on one breast. The electrodes (pads) will be marked in some way, indicating that one electrode is a "+" electrode and the other is a "-" electrode. Do not intermix the channel wires… be certain that both wires from each channel go to a single breast. Place the “+” and the “-“ electrodes of the second channel on your other breast. Examine the image below of a lovely client that offered her image as a demonstration photo. Notice there are two channels, each channel having a “+” pad and a “-“ pad.
Note from Bob Johnson of MedFaxx: The electrode placement is basically lateral to both sides of nipples about 3 inches out. Use electrodes approximately 2 x 2, or 2" Round. If nursing has produced tenderness then use product such as Skin Prep on areas electrodes to be applied. The product provides an electrical conductive shield so the skin is not irritated.
The pads on the ends of each wire should be placed one on each side of each nipple, about one inch from your nipple. Looking in the mirror, the four pads and your two nipples should all be lined up in a single row:
(+ Pad) __ (L. nipple) __(- Pad) __ Cleavage __ (- Pad) __ (R. nipple) __(+ Pad).
The image above shows what this is like.
Your TENS unit may have several settings that you can adjust. Some suggestions might be:
1. Wave Form: Choose the one that indicates it is for massaging.
2. Amplitude: This basically means the volume or the current. Adjust it to a low setting. It should give you a pleasant "tingling" in your nipples or areolae.
3. Pulse Width: This basically means how long each pulse lasts. Considering the 'pulse' of a baby's suction is possibly half a second, I would try the longest pulse, or 250 us.
4. Frequency: This should be the same as a baby that is sucking. I would set it at about 70.
Turn on the TENS Unit for ten to fifteen minutes every two hours. Any more time than that will not produce any more prolactin and prove to be ineffective.
You do need to continue the oral or manual expressing or pumping of your breasts whenever you can. Use the TENS unit only when you are not able to suckle, manually express, or pump. Once you start producing milk, the TENS will make your milk run and wet your blouse. If you can catch your milk that is produced you can use the TENS to stimulate your breasts if you want to. However, remember that if your milk is not removed from your breasts, your body assumes that you do not need the milk and your breasts start to become “weaned”… you will actually work backwards and lose what you have built up.
If you do use a TENS Unit, please consider keeping me informed on your progress. Your experience will be very helpful for others that are waiting to hear your results.
Do not hesitate to contact me either in SNCLIST or here at home if you have any questions.
Ken L. Smith, Breast Health Facilitator for the ACS
Owner and webmaster of www.BreastNotes.com