Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation Reduces Resting Pain in Head and Neck Cancer Patients: A Randomized and Placebo-Controlled Double-Blind Pilot Study

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Individuals receiving radiation for head and neck cancer (HNC) often develop painful oral mucositis that impairs function, possibly leading to feeding tubes, hospitalization, and treatment delays. Although pharmacologic medications provide some relief, many report inadequate analgesia and adverse effects. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is a safe, nonpharmacologic intervention; it decreases pain and analgesics and improves function, yet no studies examined TENS for HNC.


The aim of this study was to examine the efficacy of TENS for pain and function in HNC patients.


This study used a randomized, double-blinded crossover design; participants received 3 TENS treatments during weeks 4 to 6 of radiation: active, placebo, and no TENS over the temporomandibular joint and upper cervical region. Pain (McGill Pain Questionnaire, visual analog scale [VAS] resting and function), function (mouth opening, tongue movement, speaking), fatigue (VAS), and treatment effectiveness (VAS) were assessed before and after TENS at 3 visits.


Resting pain (McGill Pain Questionnaire and VAS) decreased significantly more after active TENS than placebo or no TENS; changes in function and pain with function did not differ between conditions. Active TENS decreased fatigue significantly more than no TENS and was rated as more effective than placebo TENS.


Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation improves pain in HNC patients receiving radiation but not function or pain with function relative to placebo or no TENS.

Implications for Practice

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation may be a viable tool for radiation-induced HNC pain to complement pharmacologic approaches. This nonpharmacologic intervention could decrease the debilitating effects of radiation and analgesics, and improve quality of life. Clinical trials should examine the effects and safety of repeated, daily TENS in HNC patients receiving radiation.

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