a TENS unit with a little car driving along the wire as if its a road

A Road Trip Reminds Me That TENS Helps RLS

Last updated: September 2021

I recently traveled 600 miles by car to attend my uncle’s funeral. The drive itself wasn’t bad, but for the 4 hours of wildfire smoke about midpoint... and a bad case of janky legs upon arrival.

I don’t often experience restless legs syndrome (RLS), but when I do, it’s usually during travel. Most notably, I experience it — like many others — on long flights.

Relief for restless legs in the car

Since I haven’t traveled long distances in a while (by any mode), I’d forgotten to take breaks to stretch my legs and improve circulation. The wildfire smoke was also something we didn’t want to get out of the car for. By the time we arrived, my legs were crawling and needed more than a good stretch before calming down.

Good thing I’d done myself a solid favor earlier the day we left: I’d thrown my TENS unit into my suitcase on a hunch. On my way back, it definitely brought great relief to my squirmy legs.

What is TENS?

TENS stands for transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation. It’s an “old school” pain relief device that I used during my first labor more than 25 years ago. It was “old school” even then!

My TENS unit is simple: 2 electrode units that I can adhere to skin anywhere on my body. They attach by gel-covered pads that are easy and comfortable to remove. They deliver signals for therapy either by wireless remote or by clicking on the units themselves.

How does a TENS unit work?

The devices deliver tiny electrical shocks that manage pain by activating natural opioid receptors in the body for the benefit of pain relief.1 It’s a great tool for temporary relief from sudden, acute pain… and I’ve also found it really helpful for jumpy legs when they come on.

I simply apply the units to or around the muscle areas of most noticeable discomfort and turn them on. A cycle of tiny zaps lasts about 30 minutes. My particular device delivers several different patterns.

Managing intensity

I use mine for just a couple of cycles for minor pain, or over and over when pain and discomfort persist. I set my TENS to deliver intensity at a fairly high rate, using the remote to reduce sensations if they’re too intense. If you decide to try a TENS for yourself, you’ll need to play with the intensity to find a level that helps you the most.

Who uses TENS?

I typically use TENS to treat the muscle spasticity I experience due to multiple sclerosis (MS). It’s why I packed my TENS for this trip, to be honest. My destination was hot south-central Idaho; heat is a trigger for MS symptoms, including muscle spasms.

While these didn’t happen (in fact, it actually cooled down on the day of the graveside service, which was sweet relief!), I definitely made sure my TENS was properly positioned and ready to activate on the 10-hour drive home.

I know others with other pain issues related to arthritis and fibromyalgia who also find TENS very helpful. You don't need a prescription for it and the device is affordable for most people.

Traveling, RLS, and TENS

I’ve always equated air travel with RLS flareups, so this long drive with few stops wasn’t on my radar then. It most certainly is now. While there are a number of other reasons why you might experience RLS during travel, long periods of inactivity — whether by plane, train, or automobile — are significantly linked to this strange discomfort in the legs.2

And don’t forget, like I did, that RLS can happen at any time of day. It may be considered a sleep disorder, but the right combination of triggers doesn’t discriminate by the clock.3

When I travel, I usually just position the electrodes to deliver relief, then use my remote to turn them on or off or to increase or decrease the intensity. Usually, I stick the electrodes to my shoulders, rib cage, or lower back. But with RLS, I find it works pretty well on hips and thighs, where the discomfort seems to collect the most.

TENS can be worn under clothes

The fact that TENS can be worn under clothes is one of my favorite things about using it during travel. Clothing actually helps keep the electrodes snugly in place.

However, if you’re traveling by plane, you’ll need to wait to apply your electrodes after you go through the security checkpoints. This may mean a stop in the terminal bathroom before you get on the plane. (Trust me, this is a lot easier than trying to put them into place in the tiny plane bathroom!)

Once they're in place, nobody’s the wiser except for me. I find the relief so welcome during travel, which can be stressful even without RLS kicking in.

Helpful tip: Wireless remote TENS units require batteries to work. Pack a spare set because it’s very likely you’ll need them for very long trips.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RestlessLegsSyndrome.Sleep-Disorders.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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