50 years ago, researchers treated chronic pain with electricity

By | March 17, 2021

Fooling the brainScience News, March 20, 1971

Chronic pain can be treated surgically by severing nerves or by destroying a small part of the brain that perceives pain, but these methods are destructive. Doctors … are now treating selected cases of chronic pain … by using electrical impulses [on the spinal cord] to fool the brain.

Update

In 1971, the idea to treat chronic pain by sending electrical impulses to the spinal cord was not brand-new. Researchers tested the first implantable device in patients in the United States in 1967. Such implants gained momentum as a pain treatment in the 1970s, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the technique in 1989.

Technological advances in the decades since have led to more effective and precise devices. One stimulator interacts with cells in the spinal cord to adjust the amount of electricity based on a patient’s needs, researchers reported in 2020. But spinal cord stimulation can do more than relieve pain: Sending impulses to specific nerve cells at precise times has been shown to help people paralyzed by severe injuries walk again (SN: 11/24/18, p. 6).