Pain signal-jamming device may be an opioid alternative

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.

The Intellis System, made by Medtronic, a major US-based medical device company, uses a very small implanted device to interfere with pain signals to the brain. Doctors can track a patient’s progress through an app in order to tailor their pain treatments and physical therapy programs

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.

The powerful technology has, in the past, eaten up its batteries quickly, meaning that patients either had to strap into a belt and stay near a wall socket to charge up, or live with pain until they could get to a charger.

But the recently-approved Intellis system, made by New Jersey-based medical device giant Medtronic, is about two inches by two inches, and weights only one ounce. It only needs to be charged for an hour to go from empty to full but boasts a longer battery life than its predecessors had.

The device’s real edge is its interaction with an app platform that collects and analyzes real time data about a patient’s activity and tells their doctors whether their day-to-day functioning has been improved with the implant. 

If this all sounds like a high-tech and high-cost treatment for pain, it is. 

Without insurance, having a spinal cord stimulator implanted costs between $20,000 and $50,000 – and newer, more advance products like Intellis are bound to be on the upper end of that range.  

These price tags may be prohibitive to poorer Americans, who are hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.  

Prescription opioids, on the other hand, would cost the same patient between about $10 and $60 per prescription. 

The difference comes down to up-front versus long-term costs, and studies have shown that the medical devices may be worth their immediate burden. 

In January, a study of 5,4000 chronic pain patients found that 70 percent of those who had a spinal stimulator system implanted began to wean themselves off of opioids. Prescription painkiller use continued to decline for many over the course of the following year.