Meet the Wearable Tech Reducing Pain Without Drugs

November 13, 2016




Richard Greenwood

If you suffer from chronic pain—anything from a work-related back injury to neck pain from a car accident—chances are you’ve tried a number of treatments to lessen the pain, perhaps including potentially addictive pain medications. Luckily, with the rising number of wearable electronic devices readily available, you now have an alternative for pain relief.

This new group of wearables uses decades old technology called TENS, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, but packages the technology in an ultra-portable device that can be worn during a range of different activities. TENS devices reduce pain through low-voltage electrical currents (more details on how this works below). Read on to discover how the technology works and determine whether one of these devices might be right for you.

How does it work?

A TENS device is placed directly on your skin – the devices are removable and easy to take on and off. It then sends small electrical pulses through your skin through electrodes (hence the word “transcutaneous”, or across the skin, in the title), which stimulate nearby nerves. Some devices are placed on your body at the site of pain; others are worn in one location regardless of where your pain exists.

A few studies have shown that tens may suppress or otherwise modify pain signals in the brain. Other reports have shown that the use of TENS causes activation of neurotransmitter receptors – namely, receptors whose activation leads to the suppression of pain. Regardless of the mechanism, TENS is a non-pharmacological, noninvasive treatment for chronic pain of varying types.

TENS technology is, in fact, not new – the first wearable TENS device was patented in the United States in 1974. The TENS devices of the past few decades, however, were designed for sedentary treatment, with wires and a bulky device that would be difficult to carry on your body while performing other activities. This new generation of devices differs in that they make the technology ultra-portable and easy to apply when you really need it – during exercise, work, and even sleep.

How well does it work?

There is mixed evidence on the efficacy of TENS. One of the more popular portable TENS devices, called Quell, reports that 81% of their users indicate improvement in their chronic pain, and 67% claim to have reduced their use of pain medication (note that is evidence presented at a conference, not a randomized controlled trial). One product reviewer reports similar positive effects after using Quell for just one month.

The Quell is worn around your calf, no matter where your pain, the theory being that the electrical impulses are transmitted to your spinal cord, where they block pain signals going to the rest of your body.  In addition, Quell is FDA cleared for use during sleep – the only device in its category to receive this clearance.

It’s important to keep in mind that these treatments are not guaranteed to work, so while evidence suggests you’ll experience some sort of pain relief, you’ll have to try it out to see how it works for you.

How much does it cost?

Check the Quell website for the latest details.

Are there other options?

oska pulse

Another wearable device called the Oska Pulse uses pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) technology to treat chronic pain. This device is strapped to the area causing you pain with a compression wrap and delivers low-intensity electromagnetic pulses generated by passing electric current through a coil of copper wires.

Similar to TENS, the research on PEMF is tentatively positive, but authors of studies urge that further research is needed. The Oksa Pulse is a bit more expensive than TENS options – the device itself costs $399, and the wraps are $40-$60 depending on which size you choose.

Is a wearable right for me?

If you’re looking for an alternative to prescription pain medication for your chronic pain, it may be worth looking into the above options for pain relief.

While no company will guarantee that their device works and there is no conclusive research on the matter, they make them available at a price point that would allow you to give it a shot without totally breaking the bank.

In choosing between your options, consider how the device itself would fit with your lifestyle. The Quell, for example, is designed to be attached to your upper calf, while the Oska Pulse and Cur are applied to the painful area. Let’s say, for example, you have lower back pain and wear skirts to work frequently.

In this case, the Quell may not be your best option if you’re looking to hide the device. The Cur, on the other hand, could go underneath your shirt and directly on your lower back.

Over all, these devices represent a new ultra-portable option for chronic pain sufferers, and chances are a number of others will pop up in the near future. It’s worth seeing whether such a device will help with your pain, as any one of these can be yours for a few hundred dollars.

Richard Greenwood

Marketing Manager at Smith's Lawyers. Advocate for road safety and fan of technology that makes the roads or workplaces safer.


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