Northwestern Team Introduces Implantable Device for Drug-Free Pain Relief

In a bid to bypass commonly used but dangerously addictive opioids and similar medications used after major surgeries, researchers from a Northwestern University team have devised a first-of-its-kind alternative. This biocompatible, water-soluble device—which is only 5 millimeters wide at its widest point—carries a liquid coolant that is induced to evaporate at the specific location of a sensory nerve. In providing this accurately targeted cooling, an individual’s nerves can be properly numbed and the brain’s reactive pain signals mitigated.

“Although opioids are extremely effective, they also are extremely addictive,” said the device’s development lead, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine’s John A. Rogers. “As engineers, we are motivated by the idea of treating pain without drugs—in ways that can be turned on and off instantly, with user control over the intensity of relief. The technology reported here exploits mechanisms that have some similarities to those that cause your fingers to feel numb when cold. Our implant allows that effect to be produced in a programmable way, directly and locally to targeted nerves, even those deep within surrounding soft tissues.”

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The patients who will likely benefit the most from this innovation are those who require routine surgeries or need amputations, both of which tend to involve a sizable round of post-op medication. In fact, surgeons can incorporate the device without much fuss amid procedures to offer a more natural relief for post-op pain. Perhaps best of all, particularly for patients who have barriers to in-person healthcare follow-ups, the device simply absorbs into the body when it has run its course—doing away with any kind of surgical extraction.