Chronic pain sufferers looking for new options to manage their conditions might consider implantable devices. Researchers are working to update these devices to make them even more helpful in the fight against chronic pain. New technology has made them not only more flexible, but also more convenient, operating from wireless technology and without a bulky power source.

Implantable devices are generally considered good options for patients who have experienced little success with other conventional treatments such as physical therapy or steroid injections. The technology harnesses the power of gentle electrical currents to disrupt nerves as they send messages of pain to the brain.

The devices have been around since the 1970s, but the latest generation harnesses an unexpected, but ubiquitous source to diminish pain: light. Recent studies advancing the next generation of implantable devices are part of the emerging field of optogenetics, which studies the ability to control neurons with light.

So far, studies have mostly been conducted in animals, but researchers are full of hope about the technology’s potential to offer pain patients new hope and improved quality of life.

Rapidly advancing technology in the field of implantable devices is making them more effective and easier to use.

The devices have until now been rigid and needed to be anchored to a bone inside the body. But newer devices have more flexibility, and researchers at Washington University School of Medicine say this malleability allows the devices to be implanted in parts of the body that move. They could eventually reduce pain in areas like the stomach, bladder, and other organs without nearby bones.

The devices are also wireless and can operate without batteries, making them much more convenient than older devices that needed to be attached to a power source.

Eventually, researchers hope these flexible implantable devices will be able to essentially flip a switch and shut off pain signals before they reach the brain. Study co-author Dr. Robert Gereau says:

“When we’re studying neurons in the spinal cord or in other areas outside of the central nervous system, we need stretchable implants that don’t require anchoring.”

Instead of being anchored to the bone, new implantable devices are held in place with sutures. They contain special microLED lights that trigger certain nerve cells in order to diminish pain. This finding offers hope for patients whose conditions haven’t been responsive to other, more commonly used therapies, researchers said.

The Washington research came on the heels of a victory just months earlier. In August 2015, researchers affiliated with Stanford University developed the world’s first wireless, implantable device that used light as a means of controlling nerves and the brain, reports Medical News Today. The device was impossibly small—about the size of a peppercorn—and communicated radio waves through the study mouse’s body.

The constraint is that the device only works on nerves that contain light-sensitive proteins. However, this field’s rapid advancements offer great hope for the future of implantable devices and the patients who need pain relief.

Implantable devices could fill a void in the pain management world, where many patients have few options.

With the dangers of painkillers becoming increasingly well known, both patients and doctors are searching for healthier alternatives. Some experts predict that implantable devices will become more popular for that reason. The technology has existed for a long time, but hasn’t been very popular, partially because it can be quite expensive.

Fortunately, some medical trials are available, providing qualified patients access to the implantable devices at a significant discount, or in some cases, for free, reports ABC News.

How are implantable devices used?

One common method of harnessing the energy of implantable devices is with a technique called spinal cord stimulation. This reversible, safe, and effective treatment is particularly effective for nerve pain, also known as neuropathic pain.

This nerve pain may develop from lesions in the nervous system that result in pain, according to Pain Doctor. With spinal cord stimulation, the implantable device is inserted near the spinal cord. Gentle electrical currents are released into the epidural space, interfering with pain signals so they don’t reach the brain.

Patients have control over the electrical impulses through a hand-held controller.

Spinal cord stimulation has a long history. The first instance of its successful use in the epidural space dates back to the early 1970s. Scientists still aren’t sure the underlying mechanics that make this treatment so effective, but many patients are able to experience lasting relief.

During the decades since that first implantable device, science has made great strides, both in understanding pain pathways and improving technology. These advancements have made the devices easier to use and more effective, while also improving the actual process used.

How does the process of getting an implantable device work?

The first step for patients is to visit a doctor for an evaluation. Patients first receive a temporary electrode in the skin to test the electrical stimulation’s effectiveness before committing to the full implant.

The devices are controlled by a hand-held controller that adjusts the electrical current’s pulse strength and frequency. Your doctor helps you determine the adequate schedule for receiving the electrical current.

After a successful trial run, patients can opt to receive a permanent device that’s implanted beneath the skin. In addition to the implantable device, the doctor inserts small coated wires and connects them to nerves or the spinal canal. These wires carry the electrical pulses.

A common schedule is to receive the stimulation in one or two-hour sessions, up to four times each day, according to WebMD. However, this varies by patient and should be thoroughly discussed to determine dosing that works for each individual person.

The surgery typically requires only local anesthesia, and involves a small incision.

Have you ever considered an implantable device to reduce chronic pain?

Image by Prutchi via Flickr

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