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Are Pain Management Devices An Alternative to Opioids?

Pain relief devices can reportedly drastically reduce or eliminate the need for opioid pain medication. 

As people become increasingly aware of the negative side affects of opioid painkillers more attention is being directed toward pain management devices that provide relief without a risk of addiction.

“People are afraid of opioids right now. There’s a stigma. Patients don’t want to be on opioids,” Michael Leong, a pain specialist at the Stanford University School of Medicine, told Technology Review. Using pain relief devices can reportedly drastically reduce or eliminate a patient’s need for pain medication, particularly powerful opioids.

Terri Bryant was on fentanyl for her back pain until she took part in a clinical trial of a spinal cord stimulator that was implanted under her skin at the base of her spine. After getting the implant her pain decreased almost immediately and she was able to stop taking fentanyl, which was a relief to her.

“I struggled mentally with taking such high doses of pain medicine,” she said.

Devices like Bryant’s work by sending a small electrical current through the spinal chord, which scientists believe interrupts pain signals being sent to the brain. The technique is called neuromodulation or neurostimulation. The first spinal chord stimulator was approved in 1989, but since then the field has expanded as clinicians and patients look for an alternative to opioid medications. Today 50,000 to 60,000 Americans have the devices placed every year.

Yet because the devices need to be surgically implanted they are still often seen as a last resort, which must change, according to Nagy Mekhail, a pain physician at the Cleveland Clinic.

“It should not be a last-resort therapy. In some patients, it should be the first choice,” he said.

The medical community is now looking to develop devices that provide the same sort of relief without needing to be surgically implanted. One such device, Neuro-Stim System Bridge, is placed behind a patient’s ear and gives off electrical pulses to certain areas of the brain.

The device has proved very effective for helping people overcome the pain of withdrawing from opioids and is now used in 30 states to support detox. Patients wear the bridge for the first five days after they stop taking opioids in order to get them through the toughest part of withdrawing.

“This could be a game changer in terms of treatment of addiction,” said Jeff Mathews, who runs the Union County Opiate Treatment Center in Indiana. He referred to the device as “miraculous.”

Yet not everyone is convinced that pain management devices are the answer to America’s chronic pain problem. Edward Michna, a pain management specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said that we need more long-term research into their effectiveness.

“Have I seen patients do well on it? Yes. But I’ve also seen patients lose the relief over time,” he said.

However, some, including Leong, say that just considering alternatives to opioids is an important first step.

“We need to stop thinking of pain control as just being about opioid medications,” he said.

From: The Fix

Author: Kelly Burch

Permalink: https://www.thefix.com/are-pain-management-devices-alternative-opioids