New Technology for Chronic Pain

The CDC reported, in 2019, that just over 20% of adults had chronic pain. This can include neuropathic pain (caused by damaged nerves), nociceptive pain (caused by pain receptors which are activated in an injury but never turn back off), somatic pain (related to joint injury or arthritic conditions, sometimes to muscle pain), or visceral pain (deep pain which originates in one or more of the body’s organs). The individuals who suffer from these, and other, forms of chronic pain may soon be able to find relief.

For the estimated 50 million people in the U.S. who are impacted by chronic pain, traditional treatments are not especially encouraging. Over-prescription of some pain medications has contributed to the opioid epidemic, and other treatments – including “talk therapy”, pain management classes, exercise, and changes in nutrition – are less than perfect solutions.

Recently, a research group from the New York University School of Medicine has been approaching the dilemma from a different angle. They’ve created a device which monitors the anterior cingulate cortex, a strip of the brain that processes pain in both animals and humans. The device listens in on brain signals, and whenever it detects the activation of pain signals, it sends a message to an optical fiber inserted into the brain’s prelimbic prefrontal cortex. The fiber activates neurons which dampen the pain signals where they are processed and experienced.

There is still a lot of work to do before the same technology will be available to human pain sufferers, but similar technology has already been approved and is used to forestall epileptic seizures before they can get started. The researchers note that the stimulated brain region doesn’t generate a sense of euphoria, which was a leading driver of opioid addiction, and it only activates when pain is detected, which lowers the chance that the brain will adapt to the dampening signals and require more and more of them as time goes on.

It is important to remember that pain can be a useful signal indicating something is wrong in the body, which is why nobody wants to turn it off completely. In fact, people who cannot feel pain are at a much higher risk of injuring themselves than those who can feel pain. But, when pain becomes a daily challenge, the need for effective treatment becomes essential.