Could Spinal Cord Stimulation Curb America’s Opioid Epidemic?

Spinal Cord stimulation Every says new news stories appear about America’s deadly addiction to Opioids. The drugs which may be more commonly recognized by their drug names (eg Morphine, Codeine, Fentanyl) have been overprescribed by Doctors for years. Usually given out to patients with chronic pain, who cannot find relief elsewhere, they were recently withdrawn causing a massive increase in the number of drug overdoses in the United States. The issue is so large it’s even drawn considerable attention from Donald Trump.  Reducing the number of prescriptions for opioids has meant patients seeking out street dealers to fuel their addictions. Many have lost their lives. Clearly, new therapies are urgently needed to reduce the burden of chronic pain – which doctors in the UK estimate that between ⅓ and ⅔ of the population lives with. The numbers are similar across the pond. However new therapies are emerging, including revolutionary new technologies like spinal cord stimulation. Could this help curb America’s Opioid Epidemic?


What is Cord Stimulation?

So what is cord stimulation (or spinal cord stimulation to use its full name)? Well, pain is a signal transmitted through nerves from your body up through the spinal cord to your brain. But the spinal cord isn’t simply a relay station for the pain signals. Since the 60’s scientists have known that the spinal cord can modulate these pain signals as they are traveling up to the brain. That means they can either amplify the signal or dampen it down. Usually, this mechanism works well. When you injure yourself these signals are amplified and the pain tells your brain to rest and recover. E.g. Don’t step on the bad ankle! Let it recover! The signals can also be dampened down when it is not a good time to feel pain. For instance, many soldiers report that they felt almost no pain when wounded in battle. This is because it is more important for the soldiers to stay alive than it is to rest and recover. After they are out of danger, the pain then comes on. In fact, this is one of the theories for why some people have chronic pain, their signals are being amplified or not turned off and they feel pain long after the initial injury. Spinal cord stimulation aims to correct these broken signals. A small device is inserted into the patient’s spine that stimulates specific nerves.  The spinal stimulator changes correct the issue.


Why might it help the opioid crisis?


How does this link to the opioid crisis? Well, in the face of a rising death toll and a significant chronic pain burden an intriguing study on spinal cord stimulation was published in October 2017. In it, they find that patients on opioids for their chronic pain had a greater response to the therapy than those not on opioids. They state that spinal cord stimulation has the ability to reduce opioid reliance in chronic pain patients. Could this help curb the crisis?