Ultra-thin spinal implants may help treat intractable pain

World Health:When will you ever stop suffering from chronic back pain and knee strain? With new technology, that may no longer be a concern. Researchers at the University of...

Jul 08,2021 | Linda

Ultra-thin spinal implants may help treat intractable pain

When will you ever stop suffering from chronic back pain and knee strain? With new technology, that may no longer be a concern. Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom recently combined soft robotics manufacturing technology, ultrathin electronics and microfluidics to develop an ultrathin inflatable device that could treat the most intense limb pain, such as leg and back pain that cannot be cured by painkillers, without the need for invasive surgery. The device may become an effective, long-term solution for treating intractable pain for millions of people worldwide.

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Everyone experiences pain, and for the vast majority of people, it is temporary and treatable. For some, pain can be debilitating and a threat to their health. In the UK, back pain is the leading cause of disability, costing the economy about £12 billion a year. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 12 Americans suffers from intractable back pain. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen and aspirin, or opioids, such as cocaine and morphine, do not work for the routine treatment of this type of pain.

Known as the "ultimate treatment for neuropathic pain," spinal cord electrical stimulation (SCS) is a treatment option for intractable back pain or other types of neuropathic pain that, although effective, is limited in use. Currently, SCS is only available in about 50,000 cases per year worldwide. As a result, millions of people still struggle with chronic pain every day.

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The new device developed here is very thin, about the thickness of a hair, about 60 microns, and can be rolled into a small cylinder to be inserted into a needle and then implanted into the epidural space of the spine - the same site where the painless delivery needle is hit. Once positioned correctly, the device is filled with water or air thanks to microfluidic channels that unfold like a tiny air mattress, covering a large area of the spinal cord. When connected to a pulse generator, the ultra-thin electrodes begin to send small currents to the spinal cord, which interfere with the pain signals.

The researchers added some bismuth particles to the device so that it could be seen by X-rays even though the device was thin. They validated the device in vitro and on human models. Early tests suggest that it could be adapted as a treatment for potential paralysis or Parkinson's disease, in addition to being effective in treating many forms of pain. The researchers say they hope to conduct further clinical trials and begin testing the device on patients within two to three years.

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