About 100 million American adults live with chronic pain, according to the Institute of Medicine. That’s more than the number of Americans affected by diabetes, cancer, and heart disease combined. Pain-related medical expenses and lost work productivity cost the nation as much as $635 billion each year. Worldwide, chronic pain affects more than 1.5 billion people, according to the American Academy of Pain Medicine.
Many people who live with chronic pain use medications like opiate painkillers. These drugs can be addictive and have a wide range of unwanted side effects. Other options involve nerve blocks or even removing the nerves that transmit pain themselves.
Are there other choices?
Training the Brain to Ignore Pain
One well-explored treatment is neuromodulation. Surgeons implant a set of electrodes and a battery, and the device sends a series of small electric pulses to these pain-conducting nerves. The pattern of electrical activity retrains the brain, which remaps how it interprets pain signals. This reduces the amount of pain the patient experiences and the amount of pain medication they need to take. Neuromodulators like spinal cord stimulators were a $1.23 billion industry in 2011.
However, these devices have to be surgically implanted. To power the electrodes, surgeons must lay wires winding through the patient’s body to connect to a battery pack. The packs can be bulky and limit movement. Device problems cause more than 80 percent of complications from neuromodulation therapy, according to Stimwave Technologies.
The process is painful, as well as expensive. “Currently, only one out of 10 candidates can get reimbursement because the existing products are so costly and complicated with surgery,” said Laura Tyler Perryman, co-founder and chairman of Stimwave, in an interview with Healthline.
Want Better? Think Smaller
To solve this problem, Perryman founded Stimwave and created the Stimwave Freedom Spinal Cord Stimulation (SCS) System. The Stimwave SCS takes neuromodulation technology and compresses it into a slender microchip device. It’s so small that doctors can inject it through a regular needle, with no need for surgery.
The device is powered wirelessly by an external battery pack that the patient wears on a simple band, solving the problem of large battery implants. Patients can remove the battery pack when necessary — if they need an MRI scan, for example.
Introducing metal into a running MRI machine can be very dangerous. The company reports that the Stimwave SCS implant itself contains so little metal that it is safe to use in MRI machines up to 3T in power, which is the standard for the United States.
The device’s wireless capability lets doctors access and reprogram the implant using a Bluetooth connection. Doctors receive a unique radio ID code that’s required to access the implant’s programming, making the device more secure.
However, the Stimwave SCS has several possible limitations. "Some patients will prefer a fully implantable system that they can ‘forget about’ instead of wearing an external transmitter for power which will remind them of their condition," said Kip Ludwig, program director for neural engineering at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, in an interview with Healthline. "Moreover, as the patient will be responsible for the external transmitter, there will be some patient compliance issues that don’t exist for fully implantable devices."
“Chronic pain patients who live everyday with pain affecting their lives can have a simple, needle-based procedure to help improve their quality of life,” said Perryman.
"This is an exciting new device therapy to treat pain, but there are many existing systems already out there," said Ludwig. "You must do the research and talk to your clinician to determine if neuromodulation for pain is right for you, and should be aware of all of the options in this space."
The Stimwave SCS is already available in Europe, and will appear in the United States in January 2015.
Photo courtesy of Stimwave Technologies.