Last Modified: December 18, 2017
- App-controlled medical implant could replace addictive opioids by jamming pain signals to the brain – but it will cost patients thousands.
- Spinal cord stimulators are implanted along the spine and use electrical impulses to interfere with pain signals sent to the brain from parts of the body.
- The technology has been around since the 1970s, but recent developments are making the devices far more user-friendly.
- Studies have shown that patients with chronic pain are able to wean themselves off of prescription opioids after getting spinal cord stimulator systems implanted.
A tiny, surgically-implanted device for treating pain may offer an alternative to addictive opioids for many patients.
Spinal cord stimulators have been available for many years, but as the technology gets smaller, cheaper and more efficient, it is becoming an increasingly viable option for chronic pain sufferers.
Studies have shown that the devices can help patients become less dependent on prescription opioids, but cost them thousands of dollars up-front – money that those hardest hit by the opioid epidemic don’t have.
One new device, approved in September, allows doctors and physical therapists to track their patients’ mobility and progress and adjust where and how strong the electrical impulses are.
A staggering 61,862,354 prescriptions for opioid painkillers were filled in the US in 2016 alone.
Even as the opioid epidemic sweeps the country, many who suffer from chronic pain fear that their only relief may soon be taken from them.
Spinal cord stimulator technology is hardly new. In fact, the first implantable device was placed in 1971.
Like that first device, modern models are placed under the skin, along the spine. From there, the stimulator send signals to the part of the body where you feel pain, interfering with the pain messaging being sent to the brain.
The signal interference does not prevent pain from occurring, and is not always 100 percent effective, but for many patients it can at least diminish the sensation and help them to perform day-to-day activities.
But just like any other device, spinal stimulators have to be charged. Doing so is less convenient than with something like a smart phone when the device is inside your body.