Using Smartphone Technology to Manage Pain

Skin BioPrinter change the way we treat burns and even use of motion sensor technology found in smartphones to advance the treatment of chronic pain. Problem is, if you aren’t aware of the advances, you may find yourself suffering unnecessarily.

For managing chronic pain, the technology is called spinal cord stimulation and has been available to patients for the last 30 years, having become a mainstream form of treatment in the past 10 years. This device has been referred to as the “pacemaker of pain”, in that it uses small wire electrodes in the spine to control how you sense pain by blocking the pain signals from reaching your brain. For many patients with chronic pain of the neck, low back or limbs, this is a treatment option after surgery has failed or for whom surgery is not indicated. In contrast to surgery, patients considering this form of treatment undergo a trial before implantation; meaning, if they don’t get good relief, the leads are removed, no harm, no foul (as opposed to surgery, where you must live with the outcome, good or bad). The electrodes are placed in the spine through the skin and patients walk around for a week, determining if the symptoms relief is good enough. If a person decides for implantation, a small battery is placed under the skin, like a pacemaker.

In many ways, this is one of the most remarkable breakthroughs of the last 20 years for pain management. Patients with chronic pain are able to achieve a new lease on life, decrease medication, improve activity levels, etc. In 2011, the most recent advancement came in the form of AdaptiveStim, technology developed by Medtronic, a medical device company based in the United States. This device uses an accelerometer, which senses how close the electrodes are to the nerves in the spine and adjusts the intensity accordingly. This advancement is based on technology found in most smartphones and tablet computers: these devices know where they are in space; when we turn the screen, the image turns with it. Similarly, when a patient stands up, sits down, lies down, etc., the device senses this and changes the stimulation intensity.

In a 2012 study published in Pain Physician, 79 patients with chronic limb pain were enrolled in a program comparing the AdaptiveStim technology to manual adjustments in spinal cord stimulation. All patients initially trialed with one type of technology then crossed over to the other. In the end, 86% of patients preferred the AdaptiveStim equipment, with improved pain relief and improved convenience. There was a 40% decrease in stimulus adjustment noted in AdaptiveStim compared to manual adjustment only. The majority of patients reported increased comfort with position changes, improved activity levels and improved sleep.

The Information Age has led to a more rapid development of technology in the last 20 years then we have seen in the last century, with spinal cord stimulation being a prime example. In fact, this technology is now being looked at for other applications: Deep brain stimulation in Parkinson’s disease, Spinal cord stimulation in paraplegics allowing them to stand and walk, etc. In chronic pain management, these advancements continue to push the envelope for what we can achieve in improving quality of life, allowing patients to return to a life once forgotten.

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