Donna came to the Central Florida Foot and Ankle Center to heal a partial tear of her achilles tendon. She also needed to do something about the pain. It was intense: eight or nine on a scale that goes up to ten. Since she was already a veteran in her fight with chronic back pain, this only compounded her pain struggles. “I take medication every day,” she said. “Cannot live without my medication.”
Donna’s story is common. According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, about 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. That’s almost one out of three Americans. The consequences of chronic pain include poor sleep, the inability to work jobs that require physical activity, and lower quality of life. Like Donna, most treat the problem with medication. Usually, patients take powerful opioids like Oxycontin. This leaves patients free from pain, but vulnerable to side effects like dizziness and addiction.
A new wearable device promises to help pain sufferers without medication, a prescription, or the side effects that are common with other pain treatments. The device, called Quell, simply straps to the pain sufferer’s upper calf. There, it stimulates sensory nerves that activate the brain and body’s natural anti-pain systems.
It's natural to be skeptical of claims surrounding pain relief solutions. Quacks have sold false promises for centuries. But the science behind Quell is well known. Quell is simply a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) device. The first TENS device was patented in the 1970s and it quickly became a common pain management method. A meta analysis in the medical journal Pain reviewed clinical trials of electrical nerve stimulation between 1976 and 2006. It concluded, “ENS is an effective treatment modality for chronic musculoskeletal pain.”
However, typical TENS devices have limitations for the average pain sufferer. Namely, they are bulky, difficult to use, and impossible to transport. You have to attach electrodes to your body for each therapy session. Using it while going out or living your life normally is out of the question.
Quell is part of a new category of TENS called Wearable Intensive Nerve Stimulation (WINS) devices. WINS devices aim to solve the limitations of common TENS devices by making them more user friendly and offering constant therapy. After you strap it on, it provides the therapeutic electric charges at programmed intervals throughout the day. That means patients can get the benefits of a TENS device without slowing down.
A clinical study of Quell, called Treatment of Chronic Pain with a Novel Wearable Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulator, has also given credence to its pain relief claims. Researchers studied the effect of Quell on 88 chronic pain sufferers. They found that 81% reported less pain. 67% reported that they could reduce the amount of pain management drugs they used.
Quell comes with a therapy pod, an electrode array, and an elastic band. Users can also download a mobile app that monitors treatments, tracks sleep, and reminds them to remove the device to allow the skin to breathe.
Different patients may require different levels of stimulation in order to get the most benefit. Fortunately, Quell uses an algorithm that automatically determines a stimulation intensity within the therapeutic range.
The Quell start kit costs $250. It includes two electrodes which should last for a month. After that, users must buy replacement electrodes every month for $30. Quell is FDA approved for pain relief, but is not yet covered by any insurance plan. However, the cost is reimbursable under a flexible spending account.
Since the device became commercially available, many people reported that it’s made their lives easier — including Donna. When Donna came to the Central Florida Foot and Ankle Center, Dr. Tatiana Wellens initially worried that she would have to recommend surgery for the pain. Instead, she put Donna in a medical boot and a Quell device. After just one and half weeks in the device, Donna noticed a remarkable difference. “Since I started using this, I haven’t had to take any medication for my back,” she said. “It is wonderful.”
Quell, of course, doesn’t work for everyone, and it’s not a magic bullet. But it’s a promising new weapon in the war against pain. As always, consult with your doctor before pursuing any medical treatment.