Chronic back pain is widely reported around the world, with 1 in 4 Americans said to suffer from some kind of pain.
An estimated 1 in 4 people in the US suffer from some type of chronic pain in their lifetime. The duration of chronic pain can vary drastically for some, from several weeks to many years.
Many sufferers of long-term chronic pain can have their daily wellbeing severely affected if treatments fail to offer any pain relief.
More than 1.5 billion people around the world are said to suffer from chronic pain. The most common area affected being the lower back, which is said to affect 23-26% of the global population.
There has been much research of methods to alleviate chronic pain, from opioids to surgery.
One such technique is spinal cord stimulation therapy (SCS), where electric pulses are delivered to the spinal cord by a small device implanted under the skin, emitting a form of paresthesia. As many as 50,000 patients in the US undergo SCS ever year to combat chronic pain.
Paresthesia is a sensation akin to tingling and is a result of SCS. When a device is turned on, an electrical current interrupts the pain signal being sent to the brain. Although a patient's pain is not cured, SCS hopes to offer some temporarily relief.
Although SCS has been shown to reduce pain, many patients find the paresthesia that accompanies this to be uncomfortable.
This was to be the catalyst for scientists to develop a new form of SCS, one which still alleviates pain but reduces the effects of paresthesia in patients.
Over 80% of patients reported at least a 50% reduction in pain
Traditional SCS uses frequencies of 40-60 hertz. Scientists decided to intensify this and use high-frequency pulses capable of delivering up to 10,000 hertzes. The new treatment has been named HF10.
Prof. Leonardo Kapural, lead study author and professor of anesthesiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and clinical director at Carolinas Pain Institute at Brookstown in Winston-Salem - both in North Carolina - believes the research to be the first of its kind.
"This is the first long-term study to compare the safety and effectiveness of high-frequency and traditional SCS therapy for back and leg pain," he explains.
Scientists examined 171 patients with chronic back or leg pain, of whom 90 received HF10 therapy and 81 were treated with traditional SCS.
After 3 months, researchers found 85% of back pain and 83% of leg patients receiving HF10 therapy reported a 50% reduction in pain or greater. These patients also reported no experience of paresthesia.
In contrast, patients undergoing SCS reported less effective results. Only 44% of back pain patients and 56% leg patients experienced a minimum 50% reduction in pain.
The study ran over a 12-month period and found HF10 to be more effective compared with traditional SCS. More than half of the HF10 sample group reported being "very satisfied" with the outcome, compared with just 32% of patients who received traditional SCS.
Prof. Kapural hopes this research will be an important step toward treating chronic pain. He explains:
"Chronic back and leg pain have long been considered difficult to treat and current pain relief options such as opioids have limited effectiveness and commonly known side effects. Given the prevalence of chronic pain, high frequency SCS is an exciting advance for our patients."
SCS represents an alternative for those patients who wish to avoid surgery or drugs such as opioids. According to a 2011 report, at least 100 million adult Americans suffer from chronic pain. In the same report, it was also estimated that chronic pain costs society between $500-635 billion a year.