Our Comprehensive Guide to the Top Pain-Relieving Devices on the Market

Your go-to guide for managing chronic pain around the clock.

Managing chronic pain takes work. Between appointments with your doctor, pain specialist, physical therapist, acupuncturist, and massage therapist, there are medications to keep up with, diet, exercise, and stress-reduction routines ­– we know that the struggle is real.

The FDA-cleared devices in this guide can complement your self-care plan by providing pain relief and keep you on track to living your best life. Some are wearable, to help while you go about your day, and others are best suited for making time at home for a pain-relieving treatment. 

These drug-free devices often have little to no side effects and this guide will allow you to browse different treatment options at a glance. Each product has benefits – for starters, you don’t need to be at the doctor’s office to use these devices and you get to be in charge of when and how often you put them to use – as well as drawbacks (like cost), so talk to your doctor if you think one might be a good fit for you.

It is important to note that products tend to work differently for different people and that no single device will be a sure-fire success for everyone. Just as the pain experience is unique to each individual, so is the way they respond to pain relief. If you are not satisfied with the results, some manufacturers offer a money-back trial period.

Generally, pain-relieving home devices are not covered by insurance, but some are available for reimbursement through flexible spending accounts (FSA), health savings accounts (HSA), and health reimbursement arrangements (HRA). Sometimes, a device can be covered by insurance with a letter of medical necessity from your doctor, but this depends on your individual plan.

Some devices require a prescription or doctor’s order while others can be bought online or over-the-counter. Check with your provider and insurance company before making a purchase.

Below are 12 PPM-selected devices broken down by the type of pain-relieving therapy they provide and no-nonsense details about how they work.

 

TENS/ELECTROTHERAPY DEVICES

Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and microcurrent nerve stimulation (MENS) devices use low-voltage electrical current to provide pain relief. No, you will not get shocked – these small electrodes range from the size of a pen to a playing card and often work with your smartphone so you are in control of your session’s time and intensity.

It’s unclear exactly how electrical stimulation works but some speculate it blocks nerve pain or, at least, changes your perception of the pain. Others theorize that electrical stimulation causes the body to release endorphins, which are natural pain relievers.

MENS devices use less amperage but both relieve pain and help to heal damaged tissue.

Do these devices really work? Our resident clinician, Tiziano Marovino, DPT, MPH, weighs in:

The literature on TENS units, along with more than 50 years of empirical evidence, supports their efficacy on virtually any kind of muscle tissue pain. TENS can be especially effective for cyclical type pain patterns that seem to have a natural circadian rhythm and which are not always related to physical activity. 

There is also growing evidence to support the use of cranio-electro-therapy stimulation (CES) and both the Alpha-Stim and Cefaly devices listed below approach head and facial pain in that manner. Stimulating the trigeminal nerve (also called the fifth cranial nerve) can be an important contributor to head and facial pains and neuralgias and offer, in some cases, provide an alternative to medication for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and insomnia.

Bottom line: TENS units let you remain active while using them, are easy to obtain, easy on the wallet, and have been used safely and effectively for decades. 

 

TENS Product Examples

Alpha-Stim-M TENS DeviceAlpha-Stim-M TENS Device

ALPHA-STIM-M (Electromedical Products International, Mineral Wells, TX)

Around since: 1981

Treats: Joint and muscle pain; the unit has also been shown to help reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia (see if you are a candidate for TENS therapy)

How to I use it? The Alpha-Stim M is a prescription electrotherapy device that uses microcurrent nerve stimulation (MENS). The device is portable and handheld, featuring two probes or electrode pads that will target the source of your pain (eg, knee, back). Treatments take about 5 minutes and can be repeated as often as you like.

To use the Alpha Stim M, you will hold tiny pen-like probes around the areas where you feel pain – a detailed user manual shows how to place them for 10-second intervals, working to cover the entire area at different angles over a period of about 5 minutes.

If you choose to use the electrode pads, the manufacturer recommends setting the product’s timer for 10-, 20-, 40-, or 60-minute intervals, or using the continuous option. The instructions note that you should avoid doing a treatment within 3 hours of your bedtime, because some people feel alert afterward (others may fall asleep with the device on). In addition to the full user manual, a how-to video on the company’s website also explains how to use the different functions of the device.

The Alpha-Stim M also comes with ear clips that can provide cranial stimulation – think a brain massage –which helps with anxiety, insomnia, and depression. CES treatments take a minimum of 20 minutes and can be repeated as needed throughout the day.

Worth considering: The Alpha-Stim M is designed to avoid or reduce the need for pain medicine, but it is safe to use along with prescriptions or over-the-counter medications. Users reported needing fewer treatments over time as pain decreased. You should be well hydrated for the device to provide the best effects.

Price: $1,195 –the company offers a 30-day money-back satisfaction guarantee. Prescription required.

Typically covered by insurance? Certain insurance companies cover the product

Product website: https://www.alpha-stim.com/

 

Cefaly DualCefaly Dual

CEFALY DUAL (CEFALY US, Inc, Darien, CT)

Around since: 2017

Treats: The device is designed to treat a migraine attack once it starts and to prevent migraine

How do I use it? After you position the Cefaly Dual on your forehead (you may feel a bit like Wonder Woman once you put it on) the device works by stimulating the trigeminal nerve, which is thought to prevent migraine pain. According to the manufacturer:

  • A session with the acute setting lasts 1 hour. The device must be used during a migraine attack and may be repeated for a second 60-minute session if the migraine pain is not relieved within 2 hours, or if another migraine attack occurs.
  • A session with the prevent setting lasts 20 minutes. To prevent migraines, the device must be used daily and may be done at any time throughout the day, although an evening session is recommended.

Worth considering: Cefaly Dual’s FAQ page and customer review pages note a few things to consider:

  • The skin on your forehead might appear red where the electrode is placed, but this should go away after treatment. In rare cases, an allergic reaction to the electrode adhesive may occur, and the company encourages you to ask about a hypoallergenic alternative.
  • Since you are supposed to clean your forehead before each use, dryness can occur, so you may find yourself needing extra moisturizer after treatments.
  • Customers also report that the device can fall out of place if you are too active (walking, using stairs, or leaning forward, for example) so consider lying back with a book or your phone during use.
  • For some, the sensation of the device working may feel strange and unusual, but most people become accustomed after a few sessions (Only 1.25% of people report being unable to tolerate the sensation and do not complete the treatment).
  • You should not use the device if you have a mental implant or other electronic device in your head, if the cause of your pain is unknown, or if you have a cardiac pacemaker or implanted or wearable defibrillator. The manufacturer notes that pregnant women should consult their doctor before use.

Price: $499 – the company offers a 60-day, money-back guarantee. Prescription required – the company’s website has a link to assist with the process.

Typically covered by insurance? Not by commercial insurance, but it is covered through the VA Health Care System and may be reimbursed through your FSA or HSA.

Product website: https://www.cefaly.us/en/cefaly-shop

 

HealthMate TENSHealthMate TENS

HEALTHMATE FOREVER TENS Units and Muscle Stimulators (Healthmate International, Lenexa, KS)

Around since: 2010

Treats: Joint pain and muscle pain

How do I use it? HealthmateForever’s manufacturer recommends 30-minute treatments, 2 to 3 times a day. Some customer reviews said they wore the device all day, liking its small size and that is was discreet under clothing. The device’s pre-programed pain-relief modes deliver massage-like sensations similar to acupuncture, cupping, and more.

Worth considering: More than 40 models are available, with different options for size, number of modes and pads, and touchscreen vs. button operation, etc.

Price: Prices range from $24.99 (for 2019 models) to $400 (for the 2020 touch screen unit).

Typically covered by insurance? Possibly, it depends on your insurance.

Product website: https://www.healthmateforever.com/

 

iTENSiTENS

iTENS (iTENS LLC – Akron, OH)

Around since: 2016

Treats: Muscle, nerve, abdominal, and joint pain

How do I use it? This wearable, wireless device can be easily hidden under clothing. An app is available to use with the device, but it is not necessary for operation. The app can control the device’s settings and track the progress of your pain relief.

A typical treatment session lasts 30 to 60 minutes, according to the manufacturer. Some patients find hours of pain relief after sessions, while others use their device for several hours a day, depending on the pain generated by daily activities.

Worth considering: The manufacturer notes that those with cardiac conditions and/or pacemakers, and pregnant women should consult their doctors before using iTENS. The device should not be used while driving or operating heavy machinery. The company offers a 30-day satisfaction guarantee.

Price: $79.99 for either the small- or large-winged model

Typically covered by insurance? Sometimes, insurance companies will cover the device.

Product website: https://www.itens.com/

 

QuellQuell

QUELL (NeuroMetrix, Waltham, MA)

Around since: Since 2016

Treats: Chronic leg, foot, and knee pain

How do I use it? You wear this device on the calf and can control it with a smartphone app. Therapy sessions last 60 minutes. The manufacturer recommends that new users wear Quell for a minimum of 3 therapy sessions per day (up to 24/7) at a strong, but comfortable intensity for at least the first 30 days.

Worth considering: Quell is the only TENS device cleared by FDA for use during sleep. The device should not be used by those with a cardiac pacemaker, implanted defibrillator, or other implanted electronic device

Price: $249 – The company offers a 60-day, money-back guarantee

Typically covered by insurance? May be reimbursable for FSA, HSA, and HRA

Product website: https://www.quellrelief.com/

 

LIGHT THERAPY DEVICES

Light therapy, sometimes called phototherapy, uses light energy at specific frequencies and intensities to relieve pain. Different types of light are used in light therapy, including light-emitting diodes (LEDs), infrared (IR), and low-level laser therapy (LLLT) which is also known as cold laser therapy. Light therapy can help relieve pain as well as reduce inflammation and promote healing and circulation.

It’s worth noting that the lasers typically used in home devices, versus medical grade devices, are called "low level" because the power output is so low that it does not heat the tissues in your body (as opposed to higher level lasers that are used in surgery, for example). Additionally, light therapy is not the same technology as X-rays and MRI radiation, and all of these devices have been cleared by the FDA as safe to use at home. But even these devices, just like laser pointers, should not be pointed directly into the eye.

Some light therapy devices incorporate radiofrequency (such as the Solio Alpha Plus), using a combination of energy sources to help relieve pain. Bipolar radiofrequency energy penetrates the muscles and joints and increases blood circulation to treat the source of the pain, LLLT treats muscle spasms; while IR and red spectrum treat pain and stiffness.

Does light therapy really work? Dr. Marovino weighs in:

Phototherapy devices have shown good resiliency in the marketplace and, after being introduced in 2002, have grown to include many models with different energetics and even FDA ratings as a result.

In the low-level laser category, Class 3b units (cold lasers) were first introduced and followed by class 4 devices that do produce some tissue heating. Cold or soft lasers continue to be used for a variety of conditions that are primarily related to inflammation (eg, tendonitis, bursitis, epicondylitis) and are very effective adjuncts – that is, complementary therapies – for  these conditions.

Well-tuned medical grade phototherapy devices (as well as PEMF devices, described below) have proven to be effective at treating a wide range of clinical conditions, including osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, and neuropathic pain such as diabetic neuropathy.

Unfortunately, there is very little evidence on the effectiveness of radiofrequency light therapy.

Bottom line: Light therapy treatments are quick and easy to do, and the devices as small and easy to store as an electronic razor.

 

Light Therapy Product Examples

PainAway LaserPainAway Laser

PAINAWAY LASER (Multi Radiance Medical, Solon, OH)

Around since: 2013

Treats: Back pain, muscle spasms, arthritis pain, elbow pain, muscle strain, and other conditions

How do I use it? The cordless device is roughly the size of a TV remote that you hold over the area of pain. The manufacturer notes that treatments generally take about 5 minutes, which can be done multiple times per day, and that people usually feel results after 2 to 5 treatments.

Worth considering: The device is fine to use over artificial joints or metal implants and hardware. It should not be used directly into the eyes or over hemorrhages, during pregnancy, with skin cancer, or near a pacemaker.

The company makes several other models of laser therapy devices using the same technology, such as the ACTIV PRO LaserStim, which can be found on its website.

Price: $2,995. A prescription is not required  for the PainAway Laser but other models may need one.

Typically covered by insurance? Typically no, but check with your insurance plan and your doctor.

Product website: https://www.multiradiance.com/chiropractic/products/painaway-laser/

 

Solio Alpha PlusSolio Alpha Plus

SOLIO ALPHA PLUS (DMT Ltd. – Hertzelia, Israel)

Around since: 2019

Treats: Muscle or joint pain in any part of the body. Customer reviews report effectiveness on pain in the shoulder, hip, lower back, menstrual cramps, to name a few.

How do I use it? This product combines light therapy and radiofrequency. The manufacturer recommends one treatment per day, which lasts 15 to 20 minutes with pain relief usually lasting until the next session.

The oval-shaped device (think of a jumbo-sized computer mouse) has an adjustable strap for your hand to help steady it as you move it over the area of pain. It needs to be plugged into an outlet during use. Gel is required to use the device as well as it must be in constant motion while applied to the skin. You may need someone to help you with hard-to-reach areas such as your back.

Worth considering: The device is not recommended for people with certain conditions and situations such as a history of skin cancer, a pacemaker or severe heart disorder, and implantable metal device or piercing near the area, skin disorders, and more. You should read these restrictions thoroughly and talk to your doctor before purchasing if any might apply to you. 

Price: $559

Typically covered by insurance? No

Product website: https://www.soliotherapy.com/product/solio-pain-relief/

 

VIBRATION AND PERCUSSION TECHNOLOGY DEVICES

Research into vibration technology has increased in the past decade, particularly on whole body vibration (WBV), which is gaining popularity in the fitness world as a way to reduce muscle soreness and enhance blood flow. For the treatment of chronic pain, there are devices for home use that provide vibration therapy to the site of pain. In addition to relieving pain, vibration therapy is thought to alleviate muscle tension and speed tissue recovery.

Do these devices really work? Dr. Marovino weighs in:

Vibration devices like VibraCool are well-tested and based on fundamentally sound technology and good science. Their low cost, wearability, quick treatment times, and high effectiveness rates make them widely used in the management of chronic pain and in sports medicine. They may be especially useful for joint-related disorders such as intra-articular arthritis, ligament or musculo-tendinous strains, and capsular injury.

My clinic trialed the OSKA Pulse and it evaluated well with high marks for ease of use, cost, efficacy, and patient compliance. This device is not quite medical grade but it is not priced as such, so for the home market it is well-positioned to help with mild to moderate pain. People with intra-articular conditions such as osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis seem to respond well to PEMF and it offers a nice alternative to the electrotherapies and phototherapies described above.

The Hyperice percussion (vibration) line from NormaTec also includes fantastic devices traditionally used as recovery aides for runners and other recreational athletes – my clinic has found great use of them for pain relief as well. Lightweight and easy to use, these devices are marketed as mini traveling massages and they truly do help sore or stiff muscles (eg, Hypervolt and Hypersphere). More at: https://hyperice.com/hypersphere-mini

Bottom line: Vibration devices help all kinds of muscle and tissue pain and can be worn over or under your clothes for movement and privacy, or carried with you.

 

VibraCoolVibraCool

VIBRACOOL (PainCareLabs, Atlanta, GA)

Around since: 2017

Treats: Joint and muscle pain, tendonitis, carpal tunnel, headache

How do I use it? This vibrational cryotherapy device uses high-speed vibration frequencies and intense cold from reusable ice packs in a compression band that holds it in place. The manufacturer recommends treatments of either 10 or 20 minutes (the ice pack will stay cool for 20 minutes, and the vibration unit can be reset after 10 minutes for an additional round of therapy.) Treatments can be used as needed, but keep in mind the 20 minutes on/20 minutes off rule of using ice to reduce inflammation.

It is designed to be worn while you go about your daily activities, including exercise and typing in the case of carpal tunnel pain. VibraCool is based on what’s known as the “gate control theory” of pain, which asserts that the brain “closes the gate” on pain signals when nerves receive non-painful signals, such as vibration or cold.

Worth considering: The device is available with four different straps, each targeting a certain area such as the Flex for shoulder, hip and back; the Extended for knee, ankle, or headache; Easy Fit for elbow or wrist; or one for plantar fasciitis.

Price: Each of the four options is $89.95

Typically covered by insurance? No, but it can be reimbursable under FSA

Product website: https://buzzyhelps.com/collections/vibracool-r

 

OSKA PulseOSKA Pulse

Oska Pulse (Oska Wellness, Carlsbad, CA)

Around since: 2016

Treats: Any type of muscle or tissue pain (back, neck, knee, shoulder, muscle, joint, etc.)

How do I use it? The device delivers pulsed electromagnetic field therapy (PEMF) to relieve pain and promote joint and muscle recovery by restoring the cells that are distressed.

Portable and wearable, the device straps over clothes on any part of the body that has pain and can be with you as you go about your day. PEMF has no known side effects and it cannot be overused, according to the manufacturer. Treatment sessions should run for 90 minutes and can be done twice a day. A fully charged battery should last for 20 hours of use. The device’s website notes that people are able to decrease usage over time.

Worth considering: The device is not recommended for people with active cancer, chemotherapy treatments, pregnancy, or pacemakers. Staying hydrated will help with the effectiveness of the treatment. The company offers a military discount.

Price: $399 – The company offers a 30-day, satisfaction guarantee

Typically covered by insurance: No

Product website: https://www.oskawellness.com/

 

COMPRESSION DEVICES

You may remember your grandfather’s arthritis compression socks, but today’s compression technology goes way beyond footwear to relieve pressure, increase circulation, and reduce swelling on many sore or painful areas on the body.

Do these devices really work? Dr. Marovino weighs in:

I have used the NormaTec device with patients to treat persistent swelling in the arms and legs due to lymphedema, after orthopedic surgery, and to treat muscle soreness in athletes.

Vaso-pneumatic devices like these which apply compression to the arms and legs have traditionally only been available in medical and rehab facilities. The time is right for these devices to be used at home for so many conditions that cause extracellular swelling. This particular device is very effective for managing lower/upper extremity edema, lymphedema and chronic diffuse-type swelling from other causes as well. They are also “feel good” devices that promote increased recovery and generally help people feel better after a bout of exercise. 

Bottom line: Heftier to use and store, these devices also come with hefty price tag, but for the athlete with chronic overuse injuries or individual with constant swelling, they may be worth the purchase.


NormaTec Pulse 2.0NormaTec Pulse 2.0NORMATEC PULSE 2.0 (Hyperice. Irvine, CA)

Around since: 2018

Treats: Muscle soreness, also can be used to treat swelling issues such as lymphedema or swelling in legs

How do I use it? The NormaTec is designed as a post-workout recovery tool to help prevent delayed onset muscle soreness, but medical uses include the reduction of swelling.

The device has three models: full body, legs and hips, and legs only. The device almost looks like a sleeping bag for each leg (and similar attachments for arms and hips); crawl in and zip it up to hold it in place. The compression zones inside the device provide a massage pattern that mimics the body’s natural recovery process. Treatments times are customizable, usually between 15 to 60 minutes long, and the intensity is also adjustable.

Worth considering: The device pairs with a smartphone app for controlling the settings and tracking data. It is easy to travel with the device because it weighs about 4 lbs., and the battery lasts 2 hours.

Price: $2,195 for the full body model, $1,595 for the legs and hips model, $1,295 for legs only

Typically covered by insurance? No, but it may be reimbursable for FSA and HSA

Product website: https://hyperice.com/normatec-leg-pulse-2-0-recovery-system

 

HEAT THERAPY DEVICES

We’re not talking about basic heating pads or microwavable heat packs here – clinical heat therapy requires a more sophisticated device. The treatment helps by relaxing muscles, which can reduce pain and stiffness in joints. In addition, applying heat can increase the flow of blood and nutrients to the body.

Do these devices really work? Dr. Marovino weighs in:

Generally speaking, we use heat in different forms with the simplest being moist heat packs – often utilized byh physical therapists and bodyworkers to help bring blood flow to the target area. The moist heat penetrates better than the dry heat given off by electric devices (eg, blankets/pads), but at the end of the day, when a muscle is starving for oxygen, nothing works as well as heat application to increase perfusion and healing. The general rule these days is to heat the muscle but cool the joints.

Heat application should be used cautiously over joints that are arthritic or injured – this is where doctor consultation should be sought. Specifically, medical grade heat (called shortwave diathermy) does cause deep tissue heating and care must be taken not to burn that tissue. These devices are generally found only in licensed clinical facilities.

The research in the United States on the device below seems to be lacking – with more of a push in Canada and the UK, and I personally have not used this device in my clinic. 

Bottom line: Heat therapy may seem basic but it can be beneficial for sore muscles, stiffness, and spasms, and it may provide just the relaxation you need. That said, stronger heating devices must be used with caution and under medical guidance to avoid heating your underlying tissue. 

Avacen 100Avacen 100

AVACEN 100 (AVACEN Medical,  San Diego, CA)

Around since: 2014

Treats: Arthritis, muscle and joint pain, muscle spasms, stiffness, minor strains and sprains, and muscle relaxation. Studies listed on the manufacturer’s website reported relief for fibromyalgia, plantar fascia strain, and muscle relaxation. Customer testimonials discuss relief from arthritis and joint pain as well as muscle relaxation.

How do I use it? By applying a combination of heat and negative pressure on your hand, the Avacen device increases blood flow and helps improve microcirculation, which provides relief from pain and promotes muscle relaxation. The device targets a unique arrangement of blood vessels called the arteriovenous anastomosis (AVA’s) in the palm of the hand, and when the blood is warmed by the device, its viscosity or thickness is reduced. This warmed, thinner blood is quickly carried to the rest of the body, which enhances oxygen delivery and nutrition.

The device is roughly the size of a shoebox and rests on a table during treatment. Treatments begin by placing your hand inside a reusable mitt, and then placing your hand in the device. Treatment sessions are recommended twice daily for 15 mins, so grab a book or the TV remote before you start.

Worth considering: The manufacturer advises talking to your doctor before using the device if you are pregnant, have a history of heart disease, blood circulation problems, have a fever, or any other medical concerns.

Price: $3,995 – the company offers a 100% satisfaction, 30-day money-back guarantee

Typically covered by insurance? No

Product website: https://www.avacen.com/

 

We hope that this guide helps to shed light on the many options available for drug-free, FDA-cleared, pain-relieving devices that you can use at home. If any of these seem like a good fit for your self-care routine, talk to your doctor for more information. Here’s hoping that you find a match that works for you.

All images from product manufacturers.

 
Updated on: 08/07/20
Continue Reading:
7 Over-the-Counter Pain Relief Devices: An Insiders' Guide
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