Latest Advances in Treating Chronic Pain
Scientists continue to unlock the secrets of where pain resides in the brain—and why some aches turn chronic. These new steps in understanding pain have led doctors to develop new and different treatments, bringing relief to an increasing number of people coping with chronic pain.
A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit is a small device that can be very effective in relieving pain. These devices are safe, non-invasive, and a great alternative or complement to pain medication. A TENS unit is connected to sticky pads, called electrodes, that you place on your skin. The TENS unit sends electrical impulses through the electrodes to interact with nerve pathways in your body, helping to modulate or suppress pain signals in the brain. In the past, TENS units were prescribed by a doctor, but in recent years, several over-the-counter products have become available.
One recent discovery: People with chronic pain often have lower levels of feel-good hormones called endorphins in their spinal fluid. Standard acupuncture—during which small, thin needles are inserted into certain points on the body—has been shown to increase endorphins. Doctors can now boost this effect by wiring the needles so they stimulate nerves with a delicate electrical charge.
Using needles similar to acupuncture, these methods target tight bands of muscle that create pain in a region of the body. The technique has brought relief to people with pain in their pelvis, upper body, and other areas.
Drugs such as opiates and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories have long been used to help manage pain. But they’re not the only drugs that can reduce the impact of pain on your life. Drugs developed and approved for other conditions can help relieve pain, too.
For instance, certain anti-seizure medications can calm irritated nerves that cause pain. Some drugs that traditionally treat mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression, may help, too. The active ingredients in these medications interact with the same neurotransmitters that signal pain.
Though well known for their role in cosmetic surgery, botulinum toxin (Botox) can relax too-tight muscles, easing pain. Studies have shown they’re effective in treating tennis elbow, migraine, and some types of neck pain.
When you swallow a pill or receive an injection, medicine circulates in your body through your bloodstream. Devices called intrathecal drug delivery systems release medication directly into your spinal cord fluid instead. This may bring pain relief more quickly, as well as reduce the risk of unwanted side effects.
Most pain pumps release opioids, including morphine. Because this method is invasive and expensive, it’s often reserved for people whose pain has failed to respond to any other treatment.
With this treatment, you’ll enter a pressurized chamber that increases the amount of oxygen in your tissues. Initially used to treat wounds, the technique has shown promise in people with chronic pain. However, much more research needs to be done to determine who can benefit and the safest protocols.