We’re already starting to see the beginning of a new era.
Managed improperly, chronic pain can become a debilitating condition that impacts all areas of a patient’s life, from sleep and mental health to cognitive processes and cardiovascular health.
Chronic pain can be extremely difficult to treat and one of the reasons why scientists have trouble finding the best treatment pathways is because the complicated nature of pain isn’t yet fully understood. For many years, opioids have been the go-to solution for patients dealing with chronic pain, but, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 30% of patients who are prescribed opioids misuse them and up to 12% develop an addiction.
Luckily, new lines of research show that the future of pain management may not lie in prescribing more pills. The latest innovations in pain treatment now give patients more choices and early results of experimental technologies could reduce the need for painkillers to a minimum.
While there is no silver bullet to this issue, here are some solutions which could help.
Tech tools for better diagnosis and assessment
According to biotechnology industry executive Alan Dunton, one of the biggest challenges in developing pain treatments is the incomplete assessment of pain, and this is where innovations should begin. The aged “pain chart” that most physicians still rely on today isn’t always helpful, because pain is subjective and patients can’t always explain where the pain is localized and how much it hurts. But combined with the Electronic Patient Visit Assessment system developed by Janet Van Cleave, it could become more accurate. Although bias is still a risk, AI-powered biomarkers could help doctors analyze the pain data of patients and add more objectivity in the assessment process.
Marijuana and CBD might help
Because of stringent cannabis research regulations, scientists couldn’t study the anti-inflammatory effects of flavonoids for many years. Now that these restrictions no longer exist, they have discovered that the popularity of CBD oil is more than just hype. According to researchers at the University of Guelph in Canada, the anti-inflammatory properties of the Cannabis sativa plant are 30 times stronger than Aspirin. Studies already back the efficiency of CBD oil in patients with MS and epilepsy, and a new market for CBD oil products is booming.
“More and more people are curious about trying CBD oil and they are pleasantly surprised with the results. Apart from pain relief, we’re also getting amazing feedback from clients on how CBD oil has helped their mental health, especially anxiety,” says Justin Hamilton, co-founder of Royal CBD.
According to scientists, CBD oil works so well because the compounds found in it are similar to the ones naturally produced by the human endocannabinoid system. And since you’re ingesting the CBD, not the THC, you don’t get the psychoactive effects of the drug.
After decades of clinical research, the National Academies of Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering concluded that patients treated with cannabis or cannabinoids for chronic pain were likelier to experience a significant reduction in symptoms.
Although much more research is needed to investigate the effects of CBD oil, the medical community is optimistic about this alternative, because it could help patients avoid the risks of opioids, including overdose and addiction.
Devices that reduce the dependence on opioid drugs
When thinking about pain management, we automatically picture conventional solutions such as pills, oils, gels, or physical therapy, but, in the future, tech could play a role as well. In the past 10 years, scientists and private BioTech companies have developed several promising devices that could be used to treat pain, and some of them even received FDA approval.
Quell by NeuroMetrix, for example, is a 100% drug-free system, which uses prescription strength nerve stimulation to block chronic pain. The wearable device has already obtained FDA clearance and helped patients with conditions such as arthritis and chronic back pain. The Quell 2.0 version, launched in 2018, uses AI to tailor treatment according to the needs of each individual patient.
Another device, BreatheVR by Neon, combines the immersive experience of VR with breathing exercises to provide pain relief. Meditation and deep breathing have been shown to aid with pain management, but many patients explain that they cannot focus precisely because of the pain, and don’t finish the exercises. Available on Samsung Gear VR and Oculus Go, BreatheVR is an app that places the user in an animated meadow and plays soothing nature sounds. In a 2017 pilot study, 80% of patients reported a decrease in pain intensity after three minutes of using the app, the biggest drop being 50%.
The SPRINT Peripheral Nerve Stimulation (PNS) System from SPR Therapeutics obtained FDA clearance in 2018 and has already shown excellent results in patients with chronic pain. The device consists of a single, thread-like wire, which can be implanted on the patient through a minimally invasive procedure that doesn’t require anesthesia and stimulates peripheral nerves for 60 days. The treatment is opioid-free and, according to a study published in April 2019, 67% of the patients involved reported significant pain relief.
Personalized medicine is a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the treatment and care of patients. Instead, doctors (and potentially AI systems) will have access to more information about individual patients and will be able to make personalized decisions, improving overall health benefits. This has the potential to tailor therapy with the best response and highest safety margin for all patients, and we are already starting to see the immense potential that this approach has.
Although CBD oil, personalized medicine, or wearable devices are not yet mainstream and fully matured into the market, the new lines of research opened by scientists show that treating chronic pain doesn’t have to involve dangerous dosages of painkillers with devastating side-effects. As safer alternatives and innovative biotech are making a breakthrough on the market, chronic pain could soon become easier to deal with and have a smaller impact on patients’ lives and wellbeing than it does today.