Using a TENS unit to Stimulate Lactation 
by DrJim

 

Introduction to TENS:

Any woman who wants to induce lactation when she has not just delivered a baby must do so by stimulating her breasts and specifically her nipples frequently by using one of 3 common methods; 1. Pumping with a hospital grade breast pump 2. Massaging the breasts using the Marmet technique 3. Having your husband/partner suckle. There is a 4th way as well although it has not been used much; Using a TENS unit (Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation) to stimulate the nipples. When would you want to consider a TENS unit as an alternative to the first 3? Many women who want to induce, work out in the public and find it almost impossible to have suckling, do pumping or marmet technique several times a day. The advantage of a TENS is that it can be worn at work all day around the neck or on the waist with the electrodes left in place and turned on and off at will. You can still work and coworkers will not know what is going on as it is totally discrete, no movement, sound or devices are apparent.

Can Electrical Stimulation Really Promote Lactation?

All the nerves in the breast, when stimulated, promote the release of Prolactin by the Pituitary. These include the sensory nerves of the nipple and areola and the nerves to the ducts under the areola that sense the compression and suckling actions. In addition to these, the nerves throughout the breast, in the alveoli and skin will promote Prolactin release but not as intensely as the nipple and areola. What this means is that virtually any type of playing with the breast whether it be fondling, squeezing, rubbing, suckling etc. is stimulating to the breast. It has been reported in the literature that a variety of sensory stimulation to the breast can bring on spontaneous lactation. These include the rubbing of the nipple by clothes when the woman does not wear a bra, irritating skin conditions including itchy rashes, herpes infections and other things. An example of “Spontaneous lactation” is where the woman acquires an itchy rash on the skin of the breast such as Poison Ivy and she scratches it a lot because it is very itchy. One morning she wakes up after dealing with the rash for a while and finds that her breast is spontaneously leaking a little milk. The general point is this> stimulating the sensory nerves in the nipple by a TENS unit will most likely cause Prolactin release and induce lactation.

How Does a TENS Unit Work?

A TENS unit generates a very small, high frequency current that stimulate nerve endings. They are used most frequently to block pain signals in conditions such as chronic low back pain. Many of them also have a setting to cause muscle contractions. When the pads are placed on or near the nipple and the unit is turned on to a low setting you will feel a tingle in the nipple as these nerves are stimulated, that is all it takes. 

Is a TENS Unit Safe to Use?

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. 

Purchasing a TENS Unit: 

TENS units come in a great variety of sizes and configurations. You can purchase one from multiple sites on the Internet. Buy a simple, small one, a 2-channel unit. It will probably have 2 modes of operation, which is all you need. Don't pay more than $50 if possible, get one with a 9 volt battery if possible rather than a watch battery because the battery will last longer, however the watch battery types are smaller. Buy it from a site that does not require a prescription. You might want to get a small bag to put it in and hang it from your neck or waist. Here is a link to an example that is very good: 

http://www.bodyclock.net/acatalog/Flexi_TENS.html

This TENS is very small and flexible, about the size of 4 tongue depressor blades stacked together. It has little flat buttons, is a 2 channel unit, it does run on a watch battery. It comes with a little cord and can be hung from the neck between the breasts unobtrusively, no bag needed. You can push the buttons off and on all day with ease.

It costs $70 and does not require a prescription. They will ship to US/Canada for $10.

The pads that come with the unit are usually 1- 1 1/2" square. You can use these or you can purchase some special pads that fit over the breast. Essentially all TENS units are built the same way with interchangeable wires and pads so it is unlikely you will have a problem with compatibility if you buy separate pads. Here is a link to consider: 

http://www.ib3health.com/products/TensElectrodeAndWire/BreastMassager.shtml

How do I Use the Unit? 

A 2 channel unit comes with 2 pairs of wires. Each pair has a red and black tip. Connect the 4 pads to these tips and place the pair of pads on each pair of wires to one breast, the other pair go on the other breast. Place the two pads on the Areola left and right, beside the nipple. They should be about ¾” apart. When done all 4 pads should be in a line with the nipples. Most TENS units have at least 2 settings; a pain blocking setting and a muscle stimulation setting. Use the muscle stimulation setting, which is a pulsing intermittent setting very similar to suckling. Turn the level of stimulation up to just a pleasant tingling level, it doesn't have to be a high level for this purpose, just enough to feel a "sensory buzz". Turn the TENS unit on several times during the day for a short time. 15 min every two hours would work very well. See what happens over a month.

For What Purposes Can I Use It? 

You can use it to begin the stimulation of the breasts to induce lactation. Once you start getting milk in the breasts you must add pumping to remove it because milk staying in the alveoli is a powerful influence to turn the alveoli back off. You can also use it to supplement stimulation with pumping later when you want to pump only 2 or 3 times a day. You can also use it to stimulate during the night while you sleep to accelerate the changes. (You do have to wake up to turn it on however.) 

What Happens in the Bre ast with TENS Stimulation:

Prolactin is released from the pituitary in about 4-5 discrete pulses over 15 to 20 minutes with suckling. After this more release does not occur for a while so stimulating the breast for more than 15-20 minutes does not cause more Prolactin release. For maximum release it is best to stimulate the nipples 15 min every 2 hours. Prolactin turns the alveoli in the breasts on to produce milk for about 3 hours. If the breasts are not ready to make milk, the Prolactin stimulates development of the changes necessary to do so. 

What Kind of Changes Do I Look for In My Breasts?

When starting to induce most women experience first some tenderness in the glands of the breasts and may notice a little dilation of the veins under the skin. The breasts may feel a little warmer to touch corresponding with the increased metabolism. They may also retain some fluid and feel a little fuller and heavier. The nipple can be a little tender and thickens and gets a little firmer as the ducts in the nipple itself enlarge. The areola may then enlarge its diameter some and get a little darker. All these changes may occur before even one drop appears at the nipple. Further stimulation will cause the alveoli to develop little muscles around them, which will start contracting with the stimulation. This will be a tingling feeling associated with letdown. This tingling usually begins before any significant amount of milk can be expressed but eventually develops into the full letdown experience. You should check every so often to see if you are making milk. When you start to make more than a few drops you need to add pumping to your schedule.

 

DrJim

 

   

 

 

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