Could a Buzz Trick Your Brain, and Relieve Chronic Pain? (VIDEO)

October 29, 2017 GMT

WALTHAM -- Chronic-pain sufferers live in your neighborhood.

About one of three Americans experience daily chronic pain, as tens of millions descend upon doctors’ offices to receive scripts for prescription pills.

But what if there was another way? What if sufferers could treat chronic pain without taking opioids every day?

Officials at NeuroMetrix want residents to know there’s a drug-free alternative. The company along the Route 128 corridor produces Quell, a wearable technology that treats chronic pain. The FDA-cleared device is available without a prescription.

Quell, placed around a person’s calf, stimulates the individual’s leg with a high-frequency buzzing sensation. This sends signals to a person’s brain, which triggers the bodies’ natural pain-blocking response.

“We say, ‘We hack the brain to treat chronic pain,’” said NeuroMetrix Chief Commercial Officer Frank McGillin.

“We trigger the release of naturally-occurring opioids to block the pain signals,” he added.

Eighty-one percent of users have reported improvement in their chronic pain, according to McGillin. Almost 70 percent of users reported a reduction in their pain medication.

The company was founded by Shai Gozani in 1996 as a spinoff from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology. Its focus at the start was on diagnostic tests in doctors’ offices to detect nerve conditions, such as diabetic neuropathy and carpal tunnel syndrome.

Then five years ago, the company turned to addressing the problems that diabetics face daily. Their mission was to treat chronic pain, which led to Quell.

“For so long, it has been a one-size-fits-all approach for chronic-pain sufferers,” said the CCO of NeuroMetrix, which gave a presentation at a recent Middlesex District Attorney Lowell Opioid Task Force meeting. “It has been easy for doctors to just write a prescription for pills.

“But people need to be aware of alternatives. They need more options,” he added.

With this option, a user secures the device in a leg band -- looking like something a runner might wear. An electrode snaps into the back.

Quell also has a water-based gel and silver arrays; the electrical stimulation is transmitted through these arrays, and the gel provides contact to the skin.

“This is the way we zap your nerves,” McGillin said.

Quell comes with a rechargeable battery that can last for five days without charging.

The device is worn on the calf regardless of the source of pain, whether it’s back pain, arthritic pain or diabetic nerve pain.

“It’s a great place to stimulate sensory nerves (the calf),” McGillin said. “And it’s pretty convenient and a discrete place to wear it.”

The technology is personalized; when someone uses it for the first time, they calibrate it to their needs. They can use a smartphone app to calibrate the right level of dosage.

During the two-minute calibration, the user feels a tingle -- a low-energy pulse. The device learns the user’s sensory threshold, and can calculate the dosage to treat their pain.

Quell then delivers automated stimulation every other hour, and the user can go about their day during the therapy. The technology is also FDA-cleared for use while sleeping.

“People in pain don’t sleep well,” McGillin said. “It’s a vicious cycle that if you’re not getting good sleep, it increases your sensitivity to pain.”

The smartphone app tracks the user’s sleep.

“It’s a good objective measure that your pain is getting better if you’re sleeping more,” he added.

The interactive app also provides other feedback, including the user’s activity and gait.

“We’ve heard repeatedly from users that they’re excited there’s a drug-free option that’s credible, clinically-proven and can make a difference in their life,” McGillin said.

Quell is produced in Woburn. They ship about 100,000 products a year from that facility.

A few hundred physicians dispense Quell out of their offices, including podiatrists. The product can be purchased at some CVS and Best Buy stores, along with on Amazon. It can also be purchased online at .

Quell costs $249 for the starter pack. A one-month supply of electrodes cost $29.95.

“It comes out to $1 a day, which compared to the cost of copays and medication is a good value,” McGillin said.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s Office declined to comment for this story.

Follow Rick Sobey on Twitter @rsobeyLSun.