This Device Promises Drug-Free Pain Relief

Quell, developed by Waltham's NeuroMetrix, is meant to cut down on opioid use.


Quell/Photo provided

What if there were an alternative to pain pills? Quell, a small device worn around the calf, promises just that.

The device, which attaches to the leg using a sports band and electrodes, modulates pain perception by stimulating the nervous system, which the user may feel as a strong but comfortable tingling sensation. The sensory nerves in the calf carry neural pulses to the brain, which then coaxes the spinal fluid to produce more enkephalin, a natural opioid similar to an endorphin. This occurs automatically when the nerves are stimulated long enough.

“[Chronic pain sufferers] want to be able to work and maintain relationships and take care of their kids,” says Dr. Shai Gozani, Quell’s creator. “If we can provide technology that can help you do that without making you zonked out, or really ill, or potentially driving you toward addiction, then I think we’ve made a huge contribution. They’re not asking for the world.”

Although it is most effective during an active therapy session, Quell can have long-term effects. The endogenous opioids stay in the body for about an hour after a therapy session, which can help users reduce their prescription opioid intake.

The device also changes an individual’s perception of pain indirectly. Over time, a chronic pain sufferer’s brain becomes maladapted to pain and amplifies it. But it may be possible to reverse that effect using neurostimulation.

“Pain gets locked in the brain. The only way to unwind that is to chronically reduce the amount of pain in the brain, so the brain can reverse those changes,” explains Gozani, who is also the founder of Waltham-based NeuroMetrix. “If you can do that, you can get a persistent improvement of pain.”

By using neurostimulation, Quell increases the amount of enkephalin in the spinal fluid, which prevents pain signals from entering the brain. If the amount of pain the brain perceives over time is reduced, a person may be able to reverse the maladaptive changes that have been wired into the brain.

In addition to helping people overcome pain during the day, Quell—the only such device approved for overnight use—comes with an app that helps patients sleep at night. Gozani compares the effect to a sleeping pill.

“It has a lot of intelligence to carefully manage stimulation while you sleep so that the stimulation itself doesn’t wake you up—that’s kind of the sleeping pill effect,” he says.

The app also monitors sleep like an activity tracker, helping patients understand how chronic pain can mess with rest.

“Overtime, as we get more and more data, we hope to do very sophisticated analytics that can actually send feedback to the user,” Gozani says. “It’s both therapy and data collection.”

Gozani hopes that mixture will become part of what he describes as a pain management “toolbox,” which currently includes cognitive behavioral therapy, opioids, and physical therapy.

“You really have to think about it as a multidimensional approach,” he says. “If you can add more effective tools to that toolbox…then you’re not as reliant on opioids. Hopefully, then we reduce the consequences of opioids, all the way up to potential addiction.”