For someone living with severe pain after an injury or because of illness, the usual answer—drugs—can pose some obvious problems, like addiction or an accidental overdose. But a new wearable device tackles pain another way: By stimulating nerves in the leg, the gadget claims it can block pain signals without someone necessarily popping a pill.
The device, called Quell, isn't the first to use electrical stimulation to fight pain; similar technology has been used since the 1970s. It works by triggering natural opioids in the brain.
"When you stimulate normal sensory nerves, it actually will trigger the brain to block pain signals," says Dr. Shai Gozani, president and CEO of NeuroMetrix, the company that made Quell. "It elevates your inherent pain modulating chemicals—at a molecular level, it's what painkillers do synthetically. But you can essentially cause a similar effect without any of the downsides by electrically stimulating to induce your brain to produce these chemicals."
In the past, the technology has often been implanted under the skin, because it only blocks pain while it's zapping someone. "Implanting it is very expensive, and there are downsides—it's surgery," says Gozani. "It's reserved for a small number of people. But you can accomplish the same thing by stimulating across the skin. For that, you really need a wearable."
The company, which originally started as a spinoff from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, worked with engineers and designers to make a version of the technology that someone with chronic pain could strap on and theoretically wear all day.
"You have to obviously have it in a tiny form factor because people aren't going to wear bulky devices on their body, you have to have battery life, you have to have a lot of automation," Gozani says. "People don't want to be fiddling around with the device, they just want to put it on, press a button, and that's it, like taking a pill. There'a s lot of really complicated engineering to make the concept of nerve stimulation a viable wearable technology concept."
As someone wears the device, it also tracks activity and sleep, so it's possible to track over time how a decrease in pain might mean more rest at night or exercise during the day. The company plans to use data from the device's app to study its performance.
"It's almost like a crowdsourced research study," says Gozani. "We'll look at thousands of people who are using the device in the real world. We think that is a much more effective strategy than doing randomized clinical trials, because the trials cost tens of millions of dollars, you end up looking at very narrow populations because they're very controlled, at the end of the day you don't really learn that much about real world applications."
Because the basic technology inside the wearable has already been studied, it was cleared by the FDA. Still, it's not obvious how well Quell will work for everyone; people respond differently to this type of treatment. For some, it might not work at all; people with severe pain might still have to take painkillers.
"If they're at 8 out of 10 in pain and Quell gets them down to 4, and that's okay for them, they don't need drugs," Gozani says. "Some people can't function unless they're a 1. They're not going to get from an 8 to a 1 either with drugs or with Quell. So those people may need both. But maybe they're not taking their Vicodin as often, or maybe they're taking some of the less addictive types of drugs."
And unlike drugs, it will be available without a prescription. "Medicine in general is becoming a more consumer-directed field, where consumers are taking more responsibility and control over their healthcare," he says. "So here's a tool that someone can acquire directly online, use as they see fit to control their pain."
For those it helps, it might be life-changing. "We hear stories from people who say I can't go outside the house, and I can't drive, because I might need Vicodin, and I can't function that way," says Gozani. "Now I can take this device and I can leave the house."
Quell is crowdfunding on Indiegogo.