Treating pain with electricity? It can be done, and we’re going hands-on – literally – with a gadget aimed at alleviating muscle and skeletal problems by way of this zaptastic method.

The staff here at GadgetGuy always seem to be keen to let me try my reviewing hand at unusual gadgets, and since this one involves electricity, it’s even more interesting, since it adds shock value. Literally.

Australian brand ActivLife makes a variety of devices like this, and the SportsMed is one of the company’s higher end models, providing several levels of transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation in order to reduce pain.

These types of machines aren’t new, and the gadgets commonly known as “TENS machines” have been used for several years as a way for people to alleviate pain. As to whether it works, that’s something that depends entirely on the user, and just how much pain they’re in.

The ActivLife SportsMed model we’re checking out is designed for more than just pain management, with muscle strengthening also on the agenda.

To use it, you merely charge the SportsMed using the wall plug, and then when you want to use it, attach the electrode pads to a part of your body, plug these into the SportsMed, and switch it on.

Electrodes are placed in controlling positions, with only one limb able to be targeted at one time, and the distance between the electrodes essentially being the part that will be shocked.

Controlling the SportsMed is simple: the gadgets starts at a level of zero, and since there are only two buttons – plus and minus – you’re increasing the electrical stimulation level from a starting place that’s consistently neutral. Turning it off is as simple as holding the minus button down, but the moment you start hitting the plus button, you’re switching it on and moving up through the electrical impulse levels.

With each level comes a slightly different surge of electricity into your skin, muscles, and bone. It starts off with a tingling sensation, and then grows, with you controlling it to the point where you feel comfortable. Give yourself too much and you can find it overwhelming, but just enough and you’ll see it can get relaxing.

On the advice of our dentist, we tried it with an acupuncture pressure point during a terrible toothache, and it resulted in some comfort during the ordeal of severe oral discomfort. When we moved the control level too high, though, aside for the comfort we were receiving, we could see the electricity moving our fingers for us.

Likewise, a family member has been suffering pain through the knee joint, and tried the SportsMed to see if it would quell any issues.

“As a 59 year old women that has been diagnosed with osteoarthritis in both knees, this machine has brought me some relief to the constant pain I have been in,” said Jan Stark, this reviewer’s mother, who helped out in our review by testing the machine in a real world pain situation.

“I used it twice a day for two weeks, and found the pricking sensation on the second setting comfortable,” she said, adding that “it took my mind away from the pain, and it’s so portable and easy to operate.”

Portability does appear to be the name of the game here, and with a size barely bigger than a USB key, you can slip this into your pocket and walk around or sit comfortably while the machine goes to work on you.

In reviewing, we found that our pain threshold and requirements were such that neither us nor our extra test subject needed to progress out beyond the “relieve” stage of electrical impulses, though with two other sections available, people can be treated with strong impulses if their pain or muscle needs are that strong.

ActivLife’s product is an interesting one, and while you will need to charge the device, the battery holds its own quite well, needing a charge only occasionally. You can’t charge it while using it, however, as the port that connects the electrodes is the same port that charges the device.

The manual also does an excellent job of explaining when you should use it, what limbs and parts of the body not to use it, and what ranges of electrical impulses are being sent out, so aside for consulting your doctor as to whether this gadget would be of use to you, it’s worth consulting the manual to see where it should and shouldn’t be used. In fact, it’s not just worth it, reading it cover to cover is pretty much a usage requirement.

Our one issue with the SportsMed seems to stem from the pads you use, and that’s if you need more, or smaller ones, you’ll probably have to send away and purchase them from online.

In checking several pharmacies in Sydney’s CBD, we weren’t able to find the pads anywhere. It’s a minor thing, but one that will pop up if the gadget is ever shared around the household.

To its credit, ActivLife supplies two sets of pads in the box, but if more than two people in the home are using them, you might find you want to own more.

The port for plugging in the electrode pads is the same one you charge from, so you can't do both at once.

Is it worth it?

Pain management can be a complicated thing, and there seems to be only so much medication can do. As a result, alternative therapies seem like they’re a good choice, and ActivLife’s SportsMed is certainly one of the more interesting methods we’ve seen.

Testing has resulted in the odd twitch here and there from our hands, but once you get used to it, the machine does a good job at diverting you from the pain and providing some relief.

If medication is no longer proving as effective for you and you’re after relief, ActivLife’s portable TENS machines are probably worth checking out. You may not need the high end $250 model that we’re reviewing, and we’d probably drop to a lower one ourselves, but it’s an intriguing proposition, that’s for sure.