Estimates show that over 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, which is a number greater than the prevalence of diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and cancer combined. Many pharmaceutical and medical device companies are determined to help address this burdensome health issue, and have produced an impressive number and range of cutting-edge treatments for chronic pain.
“Pain is one of the most challenging things to treat because its source can be elusive,” said Richard Rosenquist, M.D., chair of the American Society of Anesthesiologists® (ASA®) Committee on Pain Medicine and chairman of the department of pain management at the Anesthesiology Institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “That’s why it’s vital to see a physician specializing in pain medicine who can help identify the source of the pain and suggest which pain method might work best, including the more recent technical advances.”
One of the techniques these pain relief innovations make use of is radiofrequency (RF) ablation, which works by using radio waves to induce heat in a small area of nerve tissue, effectively “short circuiting” emitted pain signals. Through CT imaging, a specialist is guided in the insertion of a needle into the nerve and discharges electric current via radio waves. This particular method has been tested to provide pain relief for up to a year.
Another technique makes use of X-ray guidance, which allows the specialist to inject a numbing agent that can reduce or eliminate the pain. The injection site for the medication will depend on the nerve source. This technique has been proven effective, but will entail a series of injections.
Short-term relief for different types of muscle pain can also be addressed using transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), which is discharged from a small device into the affected area. Patients will experience tiny pulses during the treatment. Specialists are not entirely certain why this method works, but research suggests it may be interrupting pain signals’ journey to the brain while helping to stimulate endorphin production.
Spinal Cord Stimulation is another approach to pain relief, particularly in neuropathy. This involves a specialist using a pacemaker-like device that overrides the pain with a more bearable sensation that could feel like tingling or massaging. The device is implanted in the patient’s lower back and is only activated by the patient in the event of pain. High Frequency Spinal Cord Stimulation is also available for more effective, long-term relief of chronic back and leg pain, without the need for stimulation-induced sensations.
Patients can also take better control of their pain medication through a special implanted pump that infuses a local anesthetic or narcotic to the spinal cord, effectively providing pain relief without the systemic side effects that usually result from taking medications by mouth. This method is commonly prescribed to cancer patients and those that cannot tolerate oral pain medications.
One of the last methods of pain relief is the emerging application of stem cells. This technique makes use of the patient’s own bone marrow, wherein stem cells are injected into the affected area in the hopes of stimulating tissue repair and eventually, permanent pain relief.