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How Technology is Shaping the Future of Pain Management

February 22, 2023

About one in five American adults suffers from chronic pain. The condition affects an estimated 50 million people in the United States. Fortunately, researchers have recognized the need to develop new, non-addictive treatments for pain.  

National Institutes of Health, the HEAL Initiative, and Technological Advances in Pain Management 

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the main U.S. government agency responsible for conducting and supporting medical research. In 2018, NIH launched its Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. The initiative aims to provide scientific solutions to America’s dependence on dangerous painkillers.  

The HEAL Initiative, like KindlyMD, focuses on patient-centered, “whole person” strategies for treating pain and minimizing addiction risks. So far, the initiative has supported more than 1,000 research projects across the country.  

We are privileged to live in an era when technology plays an important role in our lives, including our healthcare. As pain management research continues, new and exciting ways to manage pain will surface. Here are some of the HEAL-funded technological solutions for pain relief that we find particularly fascinating. 

Treating Pain with Virtual Reality 

Dr. Brennan Spiegel and colleagues at California’s Cedars-Sinai Medical Center predict virtual reality could be useful in treating pain. According to NIH, the group’s research has focused on three key areas. 

Part of the research involves evaluating VR technology as a tool for teaching pain management techniques. The techniques are like the ones expectant mothers learn when preparing for childbirth, except they’re practiced in VR. 

“In one example, VR users see a computer image of a tree. Changing how a person breathes alters the tree in a game-like scenario,” an NIH article about Spiegel’s research says. 

Other VR research at Cedars-Sinai focuses on distraction from pain through immersion in a virtual environment. 

“For example, some people with severe burns who used VR during wound care reported not noticing what is normally an excruciating process,” the article says. 

Though VR pain therapy is not yet common, the FDA has already approved the first device. 

Many wearable pain relief devices deliver mild electrical stimulation to block pain and promote the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.

Treating Pain with Wearable Devices 

Dr. Conor Walsh and his team at Harvard Design Lab are developing special “exosuits” for people with physically strenuous jobs. One of their exosuit designs features wide fabric straps that run from the shoulders to the thighs. When a worker bends to pick up an object, the suit monitors the worker’s movements and tightens the straps accordingly. 

“The result is that back muscles need to work a lot less. For example, a person wearing the exosuit’s back muscle activity level lifting a weight of 13 pounds without the exosuit was the same as when lifting 22 pounds with it on. For people who perform a lot of heavy lifting, this may make a difference in long-term effects on their back muscles,” NIH wrote in an article about the exosuits. 

Researchers hope these exosuits will help workers avoid overexerting their back muscles, which could lead to back pain. The team is also examining the exosuits’ potential use in physical therapy. 

“We know that the best care for people with back pain is to get them moving as quickly as possible,” said physical therapist researcher Diane Dalton, D.P.T, one of the researchers working with Walsh. “We think that with the exosuit, they will be able to do more activities earlier and make quicker progress.”

Several other types of wearable pain relief devices are already on the market. Many use mild electrical stimulation to block pain perception and promote the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers. 

Mayo Clinic successfully tested an Electronic Health Records (EHR) system that offers complementary and non-medical pain relief methods as alternatives to dangerous painkillers.

Treating Pain with Complementary and Integrative Methods 

While pain relief strategies like prescription medicines and physical therapy are well-established, other methods should not be overlooked.  

Dr. Andrea Cheville and her colleagues at Mayo Clinic are researching new ways to offer complementary and integrative care. One of their strategies involves changing their Electronic Health Record (EHR) system to present more information. 

“Through the Mayo Clinic’s EHR system, Cheville’s team will offer surgery patients the chance to express interest in various complementary health approaches,” an NIH article explains.  

Under Mayo Clinic’s modified EHR, patients scheduled for surgery encounter a “conversation guide” to help them manage post-op pain. 

“The guide explains the likelihood of pain after surgery and the reasons for limiting [dangerous prescription painkillers], and it offers several non-medicine options a patient can choose to add to his or her pain management plan,” NIH’s article says. 

The pain management options include yoga, Tai chi, massage, acupuncture, hot and cold therapy, paced breathing, meditation, and aromatherapy.  

Many Mayo Clinic patients who received these options as part of their care were glad to see suggestions other than medications. 

“One of the things we’ve heard from patients is ‘I was validated and given permission to talk about these approaches with my provider,’” Cheville told NIH. 

What’s Next for Pain Management 

It’s exciting to see some of the scientific discoveries and breakthroughs that could define the future of pain relief. We find it comforting that researchers continue to find new ways to handle one of mankind’s oldest challenges.  

No one should have to live with untreated chronic pain, especially now, since numerous effective treatments are available. If you’re living with pain, call us at 801-851-5554 or click here to make an appointment with one of our pain specialists. 

By David Wells
Content Producer & Analyst at KindlyMD
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