The ongoing opioid epidemic has cast a light on a chronic illness that affects 100 million Americans—more than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined—and costs the U.S. health care system up to $635 billion annually to treat—chronic pain.
The turmoil that chronic pain can inflict on a person’s quality of life is nothing new. However, the devastating opioid addiction crisis, exacerbated by the common practice of prescribing highly addictive medications to treat pain, has raised new awareness about alternate options to manage pain effectively.
A therapy gaining momentum
Neuromodulation, which is defined by the International Neuromodulation Society as “the alteration of nerve activity through targeted delivery of a stimulus, such as electrical stimulation or chemical agents, to specific neurological sites in the body” is increasingly being seen as a promising alternative to prescription painkillers to manage pain.
The therapy, which has been around since the 1960’s has many applications, including deep brain stimulation (DBS) and spinal cord stimulation. Its use has been applied to a growing number of chronic conditions such as chronic pain, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s Disease, epilepsy and psychiatric disorders such as depression.
According to Neurotech Reports, today, “patients and their doctors can opt for therapies ranging from minimally invasive rechargeable or primary cell spinal cord stimulators to injectable or percutaneous devices to body-worn surface stimulators available over the counter.” The field is ripe with innovation—neuromodulation vendors have made great strides creating new stimulation therapies to target specific types and regions of pain. Furthermore, researchers and clinicians continue to home in on the root causes of pain and uncover new applications for neuromodulation that will help a significant number of people who don’t have safe or effective solutions to manage their condition.
As increasing numbers of Americans become addicted to the powerful medications prescribed for pain management, alternate solutions, like neuromodulation, are gaining speed and proving their scientific prowess.
An alternative to prescription pain meds
An expanding body of research validates neuromodulation as an effective option to treat chronic pain. Dr. Konstantin V. Slavin, professor of neurosurgery at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told Addiction Now, “[Neuromodulation] is a very effective form of treatment,” said Dr. Slavin. “The main advantage is that it can be tested and changed based on the patient’s condition, and it doesn’t destroy any tissue.”
Opioids have long been the treatment of choice to treat a plethora of pain maladies due to their effectiveness at relieving acute pain. However their effectiveness when used long-term is being widely debunked and for many, concerns that individuals may develop dependence overshadow any benefits. One study found that people using opioids long-term are at a greater risk for addiction, depression, impaired wound healing, infections, cognitive impairment and even death, among other interferences including how a person’s body organically copes with pain.
According to the study, “Opioid utility in the management of pain diminishes with duration and dose. There are significant delayed side effects and adverse events clinicians need to take into consideration when treating patients with pain.”
With the addiction epidemic spiraling out of control, many clinicians are taking notice and changing tactics. “We’re seeing a greater desire among physicians to use drug-free therapies such as neurostimulation for the relief of chronic and acute pain,” says Maria Bennett, SPR Therapeutics founder, president and CEO. “Opioids have almost no long-term efficacy data and are known to cause abuse, addiction and death. Neurostimulation is a safe, effective treatment for sustained pain relief.”
Neuromodulation works…but is it accessible to patients?
The body of research pointing to the benefits of neuromodulation therapy is impressive and offers hope for people who need an alternative for long term chronic pain relief. Yet, despite clinical studies showing the promise of neuromodulation, barriers exist. The high price tag associated with the therapy could stifle innovation—these devices are expensive, which may make it difficult for patients to get them if insurance companies don’t cover all or most of the price. Yet, data has shown neuromodulation therapy can reduce costs.
A study conducted by the Vancouver Island Health Authority found that over three years, hospitalization costs climbed for pain patients before they received neuromodulation therapy. After those patients received spinal cord stimulation, the costs fell in the three years after the procedure. Comparing all three years before and after treatment, pharmaceutical costs went down 31 percent. Non-pharmaceutical costs went down 29 percent.
Nonetheless, challenges remain. In order for the healthcare system to see levels of significant cost savings, neuromodulation needs to be offered to and accessed by a larger population of patients. The opioid crisis may accelerate this process as patients and providers look to neuromodulation as a safer and more effective way to significantly impact the quality of life long-term for people living with chronic pain.