Chronic Pain Relief: New Treatments
New advances in drugs and technology mean there are now better solutions for chronic pain relief.
Zapping Chronic Pain With Targeted Procedures
For some, these procedures can also help with chronic pain relief:
Nerve blocks. When a group of nerves is causing pain to a specific organ or body region, the pain can be blocked with injection of a local anesthetic. That's a nerve block.
Injections and nerve blocks are more effective for treating acute pain. "But for people with a pinched nerve, nerve block injections can dampen pain so the patient can function ... get into physical therapy," Chan tells WebMD. "If they're used early on for a pinched nerve, they can prevent chronic pain from developing."
Radiofrequency ablation. In this outpatient procedure, a small area of nerve tissue is heated to decrease pain signals from that area. The procedure is conducted under guided CT imaging. A needle is inserted at the offending nerve site, then an electrical current produced by a radio wave is used for the heat-and-destroy mission. The chronic pain relief lasts for a relatively long period, from three to six months.
"This is a big advance because it is very localized, very specific, pain treatment," says Gallagher. "It's not a cure-all, but it can really make a difference in specific cases."
TENS. Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy is helpful for short-term pain relief. The treatment involves a small device to deliver low-level electrical current when it's needed to help block pain. "TENS is especially helpful in treating various types of muscle pain, and is often used with trigger point injections," says Abdi.
Trigger point injection. Trigger points are painful sites in muscle or connective tissue. These trigger points can irritate the nerves around them and cause pain in other parts of the body. Extreme tenderness can also develop in nearby muscles or regions of the body.
In a trigger point injection, a local anesthetic (sometimes with a steroid) is injected into trigger point to relieve the pain. It typically takes only a few treatments to resolve trigger point pain.
"Patients can get good muscle pain relief from these injections," Abdi says. "It's a relatively simple, safe procedure. It gives them enough relief that they can go to physical therapy. That's important in preventing a reinjury."
Pain specialists also turn to more sophisticated technology to offer chronic pain relief.
Pain pacemakers. The technique is called spinal cord stimulation, and it involves a pacemaker-type device that is implanted in the body. The body delivers low-level electrical signals to the spinal cord or to specific nerves, which helps block pain signals from reaching the brain. The patient can adjust the on/off button and adjust the intensity of the electrical signals.
Spinal cord stimulation is often used when other treatments have failed -- as with failed back surgery, says Abdi. "It is also used when cancer pain infiltrates a nerve root," he tells WebMD. "When medications don't work, we advise patients to try the stimulator. If it works well, then they can get a permanently implanted stimulator."