Virtually painless: Why digital technologies could be the answer

Dan Boot, head of digital disruptive innovation at RB, writes about how digital technologies could be the answer to treating pain.

Pain is a universally suffered condition. It already impacts one in five adults worldwide – and will only become more ubiquitous as chronic conditions rise and lifestyles become increasingly sedentary.

Pain sufferers have few demands – they just want it gone. This is why fast-acting solutions containing ibuprofen have become go-to sources for relief, and why pain management remains a continued focus for healthcare innovation.

As our understanding of pain improves and technology expands the arsenal of tools available to healthcare professionals, we should see significant advancements in this space. However, these will only be achieved if technologists work with researchers, behavioural scientists and other parties to pool the expertise needed. This is a primary finding of Consumer Health Futures, a new report from RB charting just some of the new approaches to pain management that we could see over the coming decades.

Super-targeted pain solutions

Personalisation is a huge topic within consumer healthcare at present. This isn’t a trend or fad, it’s a movement fuelled by our ever-growing knowledge of the human body and recognition that everybody is different.

Every person’s electrical activity and nervous system are unique, which is why our responses to pain will differ hugely. This variation is driving the hunt for pain management solutions that respond to and work with individuals’ unique biological make-up, which in turn is leading to innovation in bioelectronics.

Bioelectronic treatment provides customisable pain relief using device technology to read and regulate the electrical activity within a person’s nervous system. This allows more responsive tracking, active diagnosis, treatment and pain management on a genetic level.

By monitoring and re-aligning electronic signals that pass along the nervous system, pain messages can be blocked from being communicated – tricking a brain into thinking that there isn’t any pain. Though still a relatively new concept, it has already proven effective in reducing pain for patients with Lupus and is set to revolutionise pain management as we know it by providing hyper-targeted relief.

Getting to know you

Localised treatments will also gain in popularity. We’re seeing the beginnings of this with pain relief patches, which use sticking gel adhesives to target an area that needs treating.

Over the coming decades, localised relief will be taken to the next level thanks to increasing consumer acceptance of high-tech solutions and advances in nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology allows the use of materials at a molecular or even subatomic level, to provide personalised and therefore incredibly accurate diagnosis and treatment.

Researchers are already working on a technique where minute amounts of over-the-counter pain medication are inserted into microscopic carriers called nanoparticles. These can then be injected into sufferers’ own immune cells and travel through the body to identify where there is inflammation and pain relief needed.

Soon, we expect to see ingestible smart pills modified to include sensors made from naturally occurring materials. These will monitor things such as stomach acid and body temperature, notifying users if action needs to be taken to manage their own pain.

Levelling up wearables

We’ll also see innovation at the more visible end of the tech spectrum.

Thanks to the advent and rising popularity of wearables such as FitBits and Apple watches, we’ve become accustomed to using consumer technology to improve our personal wellbeing.

Moving forward, we’ll see a continuation of this trend, with healthcare professionals exploring the potential of increasingly advanced technologies, including virtual reality (VR), to relive people’s pain within the comfort of their own homes.

Healthcare innovators, including BreatheVR, are already exploring VR’s potential to relieve chronic pain by engaging a person’s attention on a deeper level with multisensory experiences. Wearing a VR headset, users see their breathing represented by leaves rising and falling in a calming meadow. This encourages a pattern of diaphragmatic breathing, crucial for the treatment of chronic pain. And scientific studies back this up, showing that VR treatments can reduce acute and chronic pain in a quantifiable way, which is free of side effects.

Unlocking technology’s potential

There’s no doubt that advanced technologies could revolutionise pain management. However, fine-tuning these solutions and making them palatable to global consumers will demand technologists, healthcare innovators, researchers and corporates to work together.

Everyday healthcare researchers are breaking new boundaries, leveraging the likes of bioelectronics and nanotechnology to deliver increasingly sophisticated, personalised solutions. The race is now on to take these innovations from the laboratory and place them into the hands of global consumers, where they can truly meet their potential in pain management.


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