Technology continues to unlock medical advancements we once thought unimaginable. Robotics and testing devices have helped doctors pull off particularly difficult operations and catch deadly conditions like cancer earlier than ever before — but pain relief remains the one corner of medicine where patients still have no choice but to rely on pharmaceuticals. As opioid overdose and addiction rates continue to climb, physicians and caregivers everywhere are seeking alternative solutions.
As it turns out, that solution may be closer than we think. Researchers at Northeastern University recently developed a new prototype device to address pain relief, no pharmaceuticals needed.
Soft, flexible, and completely dissolvable once implanted under a patient’s skin, the device essentially wraps itself around the nerves responsible for sending pain signals to the brain. Since it works somewhat like an absorbable stitch, there’s no need to surgically remove it after it’s done its job.
The device’s sophisticated construction allows patients to control it remotely, intensifying or reducing the pain-relieving “cooling” effect as needed. This effect is facilitated by small tubes embedded into the material that hold the cooling liquid, which in turn targets peripheral nerves (nerves that connect your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body) in the effected area. Study co-author Matthew MacEwan of St Louis’ Washington University School of Medicine explains: “By delivering a cooling effect to just one or two targeted nerves, we can effectively modulate pain signals in one specific region of the body.”
While similar cooling technologies have been tested in the past, what sets this device apart is its potential to be controlled with pinpoint precision. Other cooling therapies, such as liquid injection with a needle, could potentially lead to problems like blocking the wrong nerve, which could negatively impair a patient’s motor function in the process. “The duration and temperature of the cooling must therefore be controlled precisely,” says the leader of the device’s development, John A. Rogers of Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Excessive cooling can damage the nerve and the fragile tissue around it.”
While the implantable prototype is still in early stages of development, there is hope that it could one day be effective enough to replace the need for highly addictive opioids. For those experiencing chronic pain, the prospect of replacing drugs with an equally effective method of pain relief is a life-changing one. Rogers adds: “As engineers, we are motivated by the idea of treating pain without drugs — in ways that can be turned on and off instantly, with user control over the intensity of relief.” A lofty goal, but one that’s officially on the medical horizon, and all from a simple stretchy strip.