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Boston Magazine 06/06/2017

This Device Promises Drug-Free Pain Relief

What if there were an alternative to pain pills? Quell, a small device worn around the calf, promises just that.

Quell Wearable Pain Relief

The device, which attaches to the leg using a sports band and electrodes, modulates pain perception by stimulating the nervous system, which the user may feel as a strong but comfortable tingling sensation. The sensory nerves in the calf carry neural pulses to the brain, which then coaxes the spinal fluid to produce more enkephalin, a natural opioid similar to an endorphin. This occurs automatically when the nerves are stimulated long enough.

“[Chronic pain sufferers] want to be able to work and maintain relationships and take care of their kids,” says Dr. Shai Gozani, Quell’s creator. “If we can provide technology that can help you do that without making you zonked out, or really ill, or potentially driving you toward addiction, then I think we’ve made a huge contribution. They’re not asking for the world.”

Although it is most effective during an active therapy session, Quell can have long-term effects. The endogenous opioids stay in the body for about an hour after a therapy session, which can help users reduce their prescription opioid intake.

The device also changes an individual’s perception of pain indirectly. Over time, a chronic pain sufferer’s brain becomes maladapted to pain and amplifies it. But it may be possible to reverse that effect using neurostimulation.

“Pain gets locked in the brain. The only way to unwind that is to chronically reduce the amount of pain in the brain, so the brain can reverse those changes,” explains Gozani, who is also the founder of Waltham-based NeuroMetrix. “If you can do that, you can get a persistent improvement of pain.”

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