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Low back pain: Experimental treatment zaps nerve

September 6, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
While most episodes of acute low back pain go away in time, doctors say for about 10 percent of people, or about 10 million Americans, the pain becomes chronic. Now local doctors are trying to find out if zapping a little-known nerve can get rid of the pain for good.

He's 44, but Aaron Leung says chronic back pain makes him feel a lot older. He'd like to avoid surgery, so an experimental treatment designed to zap away his pain sounds perfect.

"All pain is derived from nerves, but there can be a nerve within the bone itself called the basivertebral nerve that we think may be the cause or the source of discogenic back pain," said Dr. Philip Yuan with Memorial Orthopaedic Surgical Group.

The basivertebral nerve is located inside the bony part of the spine. Yuan is investigating a new procedure in which doctors use a small radio-frequency probe to deaden the nerves. It's inserted through the back.

"We burn those nerve endings and enervate that painful disk and remove the probe. The patient will wake up with a little band aid on their skin, and that's it," said Yuan.

The trial is called the SMART Clinical Study. Researchers hope to recruit 200 patients nationwide for this minimally invasive, one-hour procedure.

Yuan says earlier European trials showed it can be quite effective.

"I was skeptical at first, but the results are so good. It's truly a minimally invasive surgery and patients are doing well," said Yuan.

Researchers are looking for participants who have had low back pain for at least six months, those who have not responded to conservative treatment, and those who have not had previous surgery. Participants also need to be between the ages of 25 and 70.

Leung hopes he qualifies for the trial because he's tired of back pain holding him back.

"I'd probably be more active. I'd probably do more outdoor sports," said Leung.

Yuan's practice is based in Long Beach, but there are multiple sites for the SMART Trial. Individuals interested in additional information on the SMART study can visit www.smartclinicalstudy.com, or call (888) 978-8396.