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Mental Floss 05/09/2017

Wearable Device Can Reduce Chronic Pain

There are no easy treatment options for people with chronic pain. Opioid painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin can help, but they’re highly addictive and come with a significant risk of overdose. The current epidemic of opioid overdoses (from both prescription drugs and heroin) in the U.S. may be the country’s worst drug crisis ever, killing more than 52,000 people in 2015 alone. Yet some scientific reviews have found that opioids may not even be that effective in the long term.

Quell Wearable Pain Relief Technology

There are ways to combat chronic pain without pills, though, and a Boston-area technology company called NeuroMetrix is trying to bring drug-free pain relief to the masses, no prescription required. Its Quell electrical stimulation band is designed to reduce chronic pain in regular users, reducing medication use in the process.

The Quell device, which is about the size of a thin wallet, is designed to be strapped to your upper calf—the back of your calf has plenty of nerves for the device to work on—with a stretchy fabric band, much like the workout armbands that hold your smartphone or MP3 player while you run. When you turn the device on, it delivers low-level electrical stimulation to your leg for 60 minutes, then turns off for 60 minutes, then begins the cycle again for however long you wear the band.

One theory scientists use to explain pain perception, called gate control theory, hypothesizes that nerve fibers can only carry so much information to the brain, and activating the types of nerve fibers that respond to pressure and vibration rather than acute pain can inhibit the transmission of pain signals, effectively “closing the gate” between your brain and those nerves so pain messages can’t pass. According to this idea, the electrical stimulation provided by devices like Quell can block nerves from transmitting pain signals to the brain. (The same idea has been used to explain acupuncture’s pain-relieving properties.)

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