Recently I was approached to be a guest on the BBC Radio 4 show Sliced Bread, hosted by Greg Foot, who “… investigates the so-called wonder products making bold claims. Are they the best thing since sliced bread, or marketing BS?” I am passionate about public engagement, yet cautious when dealing with the media – fearful of what I say being misconstrued or taken out of context. I am a physiologist, so my role is to explain complex and nuanced physiology in ways that are accessible to the public, including children. I find this fun yet challenging, particularly so when the listening audience may be in the millions. Hence, working with the media helps to focus my mind on clear and concise messaging using simple language and often helps me to realise that I didn’t know what I thought I knew quite as well as I should … 🤔

I had been invited onto Sliced Bread to discuss whether ‘Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) works to relieve pain’. Yet before we discussed the research evidence I had to take Greg, the show’s host, through the process of applying TENS to himself – quite a challenge because the listeners could not see exactly what he was doing. And then the ‘grilling’ began about the evidence, leaving me to provide simple answers to complex issues, such as how we go about designing and delivering studies, and analysing, synthesising and interpreting data. 

Luckily, I was able to draw upon the findings of the largest meta-analysis ever conducted on TENS, which, as it happens, was by our team here at Leeds Beckett. You can find it here. Our meta-analysis provides moderate certainty evidence that when TENS is switched on and producing a strong comfortable TENS sensation at the site of pain, the intensity of pain is reduced by approximately 20%, when compared with a placebo TENS treatment. Greg, the listeners and myself will be interested to see whether our findings change NHS policy that TENS is not recommended for the management of chronic pain. And in answer to the question “Is TENS the best thing since sliced bread?” Well you will have to listen to the episode to find out. You can find it here.

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Professor Mark Johnson

Professor / School Of Health

Mark Johnson is Professor of Pain and Analgesia. He is an international expert on the science of pain and its management and the world leader on transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS). He has published over 300 peer reviewed articles.

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