Brain mechanisms of pain relief by transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation: A functional magnetic resonance imaging study

J. C. Choi, J. Kim, E. Kang, J. M. Lee, J. Cha, Y. J. Kim, H. G. Lee, J. H. Choi, D. J. Yi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Citations (Scopus)


Background Although the exact mechanism of TENS pain relief is unknown, it is believed that TENS impulses interrupt nociceptive signals at the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. Aims To evaluate the hypotheses that during pain caused by noxious stimuli, brain responses, temporal summation and brain functional connectivity are modulated by TENS, and that mechanisms of pain relief by TENS differ between men and women. Methods During fMRI scanning, the same noxious stimuli were delivered to each participant in pain-only and pain+TENS conditions. In the pain-only condition, noxious stimuli were presented without TENS. In the pain+TENS condition, participants received noxious stimuli and TENS concurrently. Participants were initially presented with TENS at an intensity that was just below that causing discomfort. TENS intensity was presented in a step-wise fashion to prevent temporal summation from repetitive noxious stimuli. Results Pain and unpleasantness ratings were significantly higher in the pain-only than the pain+TENS condition. With non-painful TENS, primary and secondary somatosensory and parietal cortices were activated, and temporal summation from repetitive noxious stimuli was prevented. Periaqueductal gray (PAG) and lateral prefrontal cortex functional connectivity was increased by TENS, and modulated by testosterone and cortisol. Women reported greater pain during TENS than men, and showed greater activation in the temporoparietal junction cortex and increased PAG functional connectivity with the orbitofrontal cortex. Conclusion TENS led to pain reduction, probably due to activation of the descending pain-inhibitory pathway, indicating that this TENS method may be applied in clinical practice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)92-105
Number of pages14
JournalEuropean Journal of Pain (United Kingdom)
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2016 Jan 1

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 European Pain Federation - EFIC®.

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine


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