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DoD Grant Eyes Mobile Health Devices as a Pain Management Tool

The Department of Defense has so far invested some $9 million in a mobile health device company that markets a wearable pain management platform.

Source: ThinkStock

By Eric Wicklund

- In what could be a sign of bigger things to come for mHealth and pain management, the U.S. Military is investing in mobile health technology in a bid to help veterans avoid opioid addictions.

The announcement this week that the Department of Defense is investing $6 million in a four year-project to develop mHealth tools for pain relief is the latest in a series digital therapeutic projects. Some healthcare providers have been experimenting with mHealth apps that help patients connect with resources when they’re in pain, while others are studying pain management techniques through wearables, ingestible sensors and virtual reality headsets.

With this week’s grant, the DoD has invested some $9 million in Cleveland-based SPR Therapeutics and its SPRINT Peripheral Nerve Stimulation (PNS) System, a wearable device designed to stimulate nerves around the affected part of the body to achieve pain relief.

Military officials say the wearable could help veterans with combat- or trauma-related amputations who are struggling with neuropathic pain.

“Many of our service members and veterans experience excruciating, debilitating post-amputation pain,” said Col (Ret.) Steven P. Cohen, MD, Director of Pain Research at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in a press release.  “There is a clear military benefit to developing effective and innovative pain relief therapies and to providing treatment beyond conventional painkillers.”

“All available analgesics have undesirable side effects, the most significant of which are related to opioids,” Cohen added. “The SPRINT PNS therapy could have a tremendous impact on how we help our military personnel return to the active and fulfilling lives they deserve.” 

An estimated 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, described as lasting more than three months. While the causes are many, from trauma and amputations to chronic diseases, the popular course or treatment until recently has been opioids. This, in turn, has created a pain management market worth, by some estimates, $635 billion a year.

But faced with a growing epidemic of overdoses and addiction, healthcare providers are looking for alternatives to medication for pain management. Maria Bennett, SPR Therapeutics’ founder, president and CEO, said the company’s mHealth-based neurostimulation platform has the potential to replace opioids in the doctor’s toolkit.

“We’re seeing a greater desire among physicians to use drug-free therapies such as neurostimulation for the relief of chronic and acute pain,” she said in an October 2016 press release. “Opioids have almost no long-term efficacy data and are known to cause abuse, addiction and death. Neurostimulation is a safe, effective treatment for sustained pain relief.”

In Toronto, Toronto General Hospital launched an ambitious program in 2014 that prompts patients dealing with post-surgical pain to use a mobile health app to record their experiences and consult with providers on pain management. And last year, San Diego’s Scripps Translational Science Institute launched a program with Waltham, Mass.-based NeuroMetrix to test the company’s Quell wearables on cancer patients. That project followed an earlier announcement that the American Cancer Society would be working with IBM’s Watson Health unit to create the Virtual Cancer Health Advisor, which can scour cancer and health and wellness databases and provide patients with personalized data on care management, including pain management.

At Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Health System, doctors are using virtual reality headsets to help patients manage their pain.

“This has potential to treat pain in a way that doesn’t require [medication],” Brennan Spiegel, MD, MSHS, who’s spearheading VR-based pain management studies at the health system, told mHealthIntelligence.com last year.

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