The opioid epidemic has intensified the call for alternatives to narcotics for people with acute and chronic pain.
In last week’s State of the State, Ohio Governor John Kasich said he wants to put more money toward finding other options. He recommended devoting $20 million to help Ohio researchers develop new technologies to fight pain.
One option already available is electric stimulation. And as WKSU’s Kevin Niedermier reports, a Cleveland-area company’s electric-pain treatment therapy is seeing heightened interest as the opioid problem grows.
Three years ago Helen Douglas suffered a stroke that paralyzed her right arm and leg. The 77-year-old Brook Park resident was chosen as a candidate to use an electric pain-reduction device developed by SPR Therapeutics in Highland Hills.
A stroke victim says the device changed her life
“There’s no excruciating pain like I had. And it’s very easy to wear. I actually sometimes forget I have it on.”
To relieve the pain, a wire inserted into a nerve delivers an electric current from a small control packet. Douglas used the device for six weeks in 2015. The therapy not only relieved her pain, but helped restore use of her arm and leg allowing her to get around without the need for drugs, which made her drowsy.
“If I took that only I would be able to move, but I wasn’t so confident. And then I put on the little device and I would find myself having courage and confidence. ... I could walk and I took the steps with the little device on, and I would not be uneasy.”
Since using the device Douglas' pain has not returned.
This is the kind of story that SPR founder and CEO Maria Bennett says has led to increased attention from doctors for the product.
Doctors are searching for alternatives
“Over the last three to five years, their interest in exploring safe alternatives to the opioid is a driver for their enthusiasm around something like what we have to offer," says Bennett. She says the FDA, insurers and others are "all very sensitive to this issue as well and are looking and working with companies like us to make sure we bring out safe alternatives to the opioids.”
The device was originally developed specifically to help with pain from strokes. But Bennett says it is now being tested for pain associated with amputations and knee replacements.
When pain is the worst
“We’re receiving anecdotes from the surgeons and anesthesiologists who treat those patients saying, 'Even though I prescribe these opioids to them, when they had the SPR Sprint therapy, they did not need the opioids; they did not need to take them at all.”
Dr. John Chae is SPR’s chief medical advisor. He says beyond the acute pain after major surgery, the device also shows promise for treating chronic situations like lower back pain, where opioids lose their effectiveness over time.
He says that's because the nerve being stimulated causes muscles in the affected area to contract.
"Individuals with chronic low back pain, many individuals say exercise helps. But not for everybody, primarily because when they start to exercise it’s really painful for them.
"The reason why we think exercise helps is because, as you contract the muscles, as you move the joints; it's sending signals back into the spinal cord and brain, which then changes the brain and the spinal cord to modulate that pain.
"Therefore, in this approach, even when you stop the exercise for several days, pain relief is maintained.”
Chae says more research needs to be done. He says other companies make devices similar to SPR's, but they need to be fully implanted in the body That requires surgery to put it in and to take it out. What sets the SPR device apart is that only the wire goes inside the body which reduces risk and cost.
University Hospital's Dr. Ted Parran specializes in addiction. He agrees that advancements in electric pain management in general are tools in the fight the opioid epidemic.
“Confuse the nerves if you will and help diminish the feeling of acute pain or chronic pain are very, very promising. They clearly show evidence that they can be helpful. And the only question now is the prospective trials to figure out which prospective pain syndromes they work best in.”
An estimated 76 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic pain, much of it treated with opioids. And the Centers for Disease Control says 80 percent of new heroin users started with an addiction to prescription opioids.