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Smartphone-type neurotransmitter zaps chronic pain away

March 9, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
As many as 116 million Americans are living with chronic pain, a pain so intense it affects their work, their relationships and every aspect of their lives.

In fact there are more people living with chronic pain in this country than with heart disease, cancer and diabetes combined. Now, doctors are using the same technology used in our smartphones to target and zap their pain.

From working 18 hours a day on Wall Street to barely being able to make it into the subway, it's been a long painful road for Justin Carriere.

"It was an incredible, sharp shooting pain," said Carriere.

It started 10 years ago when he slammed his snowmobile into a creek bed.

"It sent a shockwave up my back," said Carriere. "I couldn't sit at all. I had to always stand up."

Pieces of Carriere's disc were pressing against his sciatic nerve. Surgery only temporarily eased his pain. He also tried prescription painkillers.

"My ambition and drive at work greatly suffered," said Carriere.

Now Carriere is one of the first to try a new FDA-approved neurostimulator to zap his pain. Neurostimulators use electrodes controlled by a battery pack to send stimulation to the spinal cord, literally stopping pain signals from reaching the brain. They've been around since the 1980s, but now a new stimulator is using the same technology in iPhones to better control the signals.

"New technology is so advanced, so we can call it a smart stimulator," said Dr. Suelane Do Ouro, Beth Israel Medical Center.

"Smart" stimulators can read a person's body movement and adjust the amount and location of electricity being sent when a person moves.

Carriere just got his smart stimulator but he can already feel the difference.

"It drowns the pain away," said Carriere. Now he's on the move again, ready to get back to business.

The FDA just approved the AdaptiveStim Neurostimulator a few months ago. In the latest study, 86 percent of people who tried it found relief from their pain.



LIVING WITH PAIN: Millions of people suffer from chronic pain on a daily basis, experiencing exactly how disruptive and destructive it can be. An estimated 26 million Americans between the ages of 20-64 suffer from frequent back pain. Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under the age of 45. Pain is the second leading cause of medically related work absenteeism in the United States, resulting in more than 50 million lost workdays each year and billions of dollars. According to a chronic pain survey, almost half of those surveyed felt they had little or no control over their pain. Six out of ten patients said they experience pain one or more times daily. Chronic pain sufferers report that the pain severely affects their quality of life and overall health. (SOURCE: American Chronic Pain Association, American Academy of Pain Medicine)

PAIN COSTS: The annual cost of chronic pain in the United States can be pricey. An estimated $100 billion is spent due to healthcare expenses, lost income, and lost productivity. Costs associated with lower back pain are an estimated $85.9 billion. The total cost of arthritis is estimated at $128 billion. Undertreated pain raises the cost of healthcare because it extends hospital stays, increases emergency room visits, and results in unexpected doctor visits. (SOURCE: American Pain Foundation, American Journal of Managed Care)

TRADITIONAL TREATMENTS: Pain treatment is very difficult in many cases and patients are continually left undertreated. Pain treatment depends on the person and the severity of his or her pain, as well as his or her overall health. Furthermore, in order for doctors to give the correct treatment they must identify the pain location so they know what kind of pain they are treating. Some pain therapies include pain killers, physical therapy, nerve decompression surgery, and acupuncture. These treatments are not successful in everyone and can lead to further complications. (SOURCE: WebMD Pain Management)

NEUROSTIMULATOR THERAPY: Although neurostimulator therapy was first created many years ago, it is just recently showing promise for those suffering from chronic back pain who do not find relief from alternative treatments. Neurostimulator devices can be surgically implanted through a small incision, only leaving a small bump which is easily concealable by clothing. The stimulation provided by the system feels like a tingling and it does not make any noise. There are several different types of neurostimulators available most are battery operated or rechargeable. If rechargeable, the device can be charged externally through a wireless power charger. Rechargeable neurostimulators have an expected battery longevity of nine years. There are several components to the neurostimulation system. Some have remote programmers that allow you and your doctors to adjust the strength and location of stimulation. Risks for this device are relatively low as it can be easily removed with surgery. (SOURCE: American Pain Foundation, Medtronic)