This stretchy device wraps around nerves to relieve pain without drugs

What is happening

A new type of pain relief involves wrapping a small strip of material around nerves to prevent them from sending pain signals to the brain.

why is it important

If this prototype passes all the necessary safety and experimental tests, it could one day replace toxic opioids for patients with chronic pain.

On Thursday, researchers at Northwestern University announced that they’ve developed a new angle on pain relief — and importantly, one that doesn’t require the use of highly addictive opioids.

It is a small, flexible, stretchable device that can be implanted under a patient’s skin to gently wrap around the nerves responsible for bothersome pain signals. Typically, when such signals reach the brain, that’s when you feel a stinging, aching, burning, or other type of painful sensation.

Once in place, the material – the thickness of a sheet of paper – essentially uses a cooling effect to numb these nerves, preventing unwanted pain signals from getting to the brain. at all. Think of it like how your fingers start to feel numb when they’re very cold. If they suffered before, they probably don’t anymore.

Even better, once the device has served its purpose, it naturally dissolves into the body like an absorbable thread. No surgical extraction required. Details of the design, which notably remains a prototype, will be published in the July 1 issue of the journal Science.

“As you cool a nerve, the signals going through the nerve get slower and slower – eventually they stop altogether,” said Matthew MacEwan of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and co-author of the paper. study in a press release. “We specifically target the peripheral nerves, which connect your brain and spinal cord to the rest of your body.”

“By providing a cooling effect to just one or two targeted nerves,” MacEwan continued, “we can effectively modulate pain signals in a specific region of the body.”

Diagram showing a forearm with the microfluidic device inserted near a painful area, shown in red

Illustration of the implantable device inside an arm. The red oval indicates pain. The device gently wraps around the peripheral nerve to silence signals to the brain.

Northwestern University

Additionally, the person using the device can remotely control the intensity of pain relief, i.e. the cooling effect, that it delivers, depending on their individual needs. This is an aspect of invention that is as fascinating as it is vital.

The cooling mechanism works because the device is integrated with microfluidic channels, which are tubes that can be manipulated with very high precision – this allows you to let fluid in or out at will, without error. And all the fluids in the channels of the new device work together to create the numbing cooling effect. With these microfluidics, you can essentially control the amount of each fluid inside to determine the intensity of the cooling.

It is this type of precise control by remote microfluidics that avoids the potentially dangerous side effects of other methods.

“Excessive cooling can damage the nerve and the delicate tissues around it,” said John A. Rogers of Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, who led the development of the device, in a statement. “The duration and temperature of the cooling must therefore be precisely controlled.”

The researchers pointed to other “cooling therapies” that have been tested for pain relief in the past, such as one that injected cooling liquid into the body with a needle, meaning it could not be carefully controlled. This could potentially lead to things like blocking bad nerves, such as those important for performing motor function so you can move your hand.

“You don’t want to inadvertently cool other nerves or tissues that aren’t related to the nerve transmitting the painful stimuli,” MacEwan said.

In the grand scheme of things, Rogers, MacEwan and their fellow researchers are focused on finding new ways to relieve patients’ pain without the use of drugs – namely, opioids – because “although opioids are extremely effective, Rogers said, “they are extremely addictive.”

In 2021, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there were approximately 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States, of which 75,673 were attributed to opioids. And over the past 21 years, an opioid overdose has been responsible for more than half a million deaths, according to a 2021 study. And if you’re a little confused about the relationship between these two figures, it is because the number of deaths has increased sharply since 2013.

It’s a really difficult situation because many people depend on opioids to live a life without excruciating pain, but every time you ingest an opioid, you put yourself at risk of addiction. So do you choose the more risky and painless lifestyle or the safer and more painful one?

Well, if the newly announced device does well with all subsequent trials, many people around the world may not have to choose either. That would be the third option.

“As engineers, we’re driven by the idea of ​​treating pain without drugs — in a way that can be turned on and off instantly, with user control over the intensity of relief,” Rogers said. “Our implant demonstrates in animal model studies that this effect can be produced programmatically, directly and locally on targeted nerves, even those deep within surrounding soft tissue.”

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