Alternatives to opioids: Medical technology offers other pain control choices

Partly in response to the opioid crisis, medtechs across the nation have ramped up development of devices that aim to manage pain without exposing patients to the risk of drug addiction.

Opioid misuse has been rising nationwide since the 1990s, since the widespread production of painkillers such as Oxycontin that weren’t initially deemed addictive. However, the drugs ended up creating dependencies, leading to nearly a half million U.S. deaths from overdoses between 2000 and 2014 alone.

To combat that, medtechs and other entrepreneurs have been exploring innovations that help address pain in less drug-intensive ways. A few examples:

  • Augmented/virtual reality devices: Through this technique, virtual reality glasses combine with apps to offer immersive environments that use the concept of neuroplasticity; breathing and mindfulness exercises, games, and other ways to help teach patients techniques for managing acute or chronic pain. Some vendors even combine the technology with data analytics to personalize experiences for users. In Forbes, Reenita Das recently predicted the market for such healthcare applications will reach $5.1 billion by 2025, with some 3.4 million patients taking advantage.
  • Neuromodulation devices: A number of tools in development or already in use treat pain by modifying the nervous system via electricity or highly targeted drug application. For example, a nerve stimulator can be placed in the spine or skin that then sends mild electric currents controlled by a mobile tablet to relieve symptoms.
  • Virtual pain consulting: The Veterans Administration is a leading organization in the fight against opioid addiction, looking to integrate evidence-based prescriptions and non-pharmacological solutions into pain control care plans — and using a virtual program called SCAN-ECHO to continually monitor those plans. E-consultations and telehealth tools are used to bring medical teams, patients, and families together for updates regardless of their physical locations. “We’re accomplishing something not typical within the Veterans Integrated Service Network — having sites working together in a non-competitive fashion to do multi-disciplinary, integrated programs,” explains Dr. Ken McQuad.

    This interdisciplinary approach to pain can include the use of telepsychology as well as remotely teaching rehabilitation techniques—such as body mechanics, posture, or strengthening exercises—to incorporate into a person’s life outside of a healthcare environment.

Perhaps even better news for patients? Many pain control alternatives may be covered by insurance.

“These therapies are covered by Medicare, insurance and worker’s comp, so people have the ability to have [them] paid for,” Medtronic exec Dr. Marshall Stanton recently said in reference to implantable devices. “It’s just a question of getting physicians to understand these are options.”

View this short video explaining what pain is and how to address it: