Hundreds of millions of people worldwide (115 million in the United States alone) suffer from chronic pain. Stanford diagnostic radiologist Sandip Biswal, MD, calls this group “one of the largest populations in the world for medical need of any kind.” But current treatments either aren’t all that great or – in the case of opioids, which are highly effective – put patients at risk for addiction.
A pair of randomized, double-blinded clinical trials, described in a study co-authored by Biswal, former Stanford visiting scholar Charlie Koo, PhD, and several colleagues and published in Nature Scientific Reports, may point to a potential path toward more pain-free lives. In the trials, patients with chronic neck or shoulder pain were treated with three to six 90-minute sessions of either standard physical therapy – so-called transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, along with exercise and both manual and heat treatments – or a protocol designed by Koo, who now runs a facility called the Pain Cure Center in Palo Alto, California.
The new method, which Koo calls Noxipoint therapy, also employs electrical stimulation of painful areas, but in a carefully defined way: electrodes are placed precisely at both of the two attachment points for each muscle in pain, and the electrical-current jolt is brief and just enough to cause local soreness and dull, but not sharp, pain. Patients receiving the novel therapy are also told to take it easy for several days after each treatment.
In both trials, Noxipoint therapy proved superior to conventional physical therapy using TENS by close to an order of magnitude. Four weeks after their last treatment, patients given Noxipoint therapy reported substantial pain reduction, restoration of function (for example, regained range of motion) and improved quality of life, without significant side effects. Those given standard treatment reported no significant lasting improvement.
These trials are preliminary and call for confirmation in larger studies, Biswal told me. Given the pressing need for safe, lasting relief from chronic pain and the apparent success of this new method, it would be nice to see those expanded trials take place.
Previously: “People are looking for better answers”: A conversation about chronic pain, National survey reveals extent of Americans living with pain and Stanford researchers address the complexities of chronic pain
Photo by Jason Trbovich