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YOUR HEALTH: Relieving pain without the wires

Tiny implants are allowing popular medical devices to go hi-tech

HOUSTON — About 50,000 spinal cord neurostimulators are implanted each year. 

These devices use several wires to send low levels of electricity to the spinal cord to relieve pain. 

Now a group of researchers is testing a way to deliver those signals without any wires.

They are chip-like devices that pack a powerful punch.

"This is the first one that can deliver this megawatt amount of power safely," explained Rice University assistant professor Kaiyuan Yang.

Without using wires, this implant can power multiple biostimulators from a single transmitter outside the body, allowing devices such as spinal cord stimulators to wirelessly send signals to relieve pain.

"What we want is a wireless network that can tap into the natural network of the body," said assistant professor Jacob Robinson.

Currently spinal cord stimulators are connected to the stimulation point by electronic wires. 

Implanting the wires can be challenging.

"If you've ever done a renovation in your house, you have to rip apart your walls if I want to run cables around," Robinson said. 

Now imagine doing that with your spine. 

But without the wires, the incision to place the implant is much smaller and less invasive.

"As we make these bio-electronic devices smaller and smaller, the procedures become less risky for the patients," said Robinson.

"It will cause minimal infection and other complications and make surgery implantation easier," added Yang.

Best candidates for Spinal Cord Stimulation

Spinal cord stimulation is used most often after nonsurgical pain treatment options have failed to provide sufficient relief. 

Spinal cord stimulators may be used to treat or manage different types of chronic pain, including back pain, especially back pain that continues even after surgery, post-surgical pain, arachnoiditis, heart pain that's untreatable by other means, injuries to the spinal cord, nerve-related pain, peripheral vascular disease, complex regional pain syndrome, pain after an amputation, and visceral abdominal pain and perineal pain. 

New Technology Offered

Researchers at Rice University have developed new implants for implantation in patients with spinal cord injuries that provide electrical stimulation. 

The new research investigates the ability to power and program multisite bio stimulators using a single transmitter. 

In the laboratory, the researchers showed an alternating magnetic field generated and controlled by a battery-power transmitter outside the body, potentially worn on a belt or harness, could deliver power and programming to two or more implants that are at least 2.3 inches away.

If this has impacted your life or prompted you or someone you know to seek or change treatments, please let us know by contacting Jim Mertens at jim.mertens@wqad.com or Marjorie Bekaert Thomas at mthomas@ivanhoe.com.