A team of scientists have developed a small, soft, flexible implant that relieves pain on demand without the use of drugs.
The first-of-its-kind device could provide a much-needed alternative to opioids and other highly addictive medications. An external pump enables the user to remotely activate the device and then increase or decrease its intensity.
After the device is no longer needed, it naturally absorbs into the body - bypassing the need for surgical extraction.
The Northwestern University-led researchers believe the device will be most valuable for patients who undergo routine surgeries or even amputations that commonly require post-operative medications. Surgeons could implant the device during the procedure to help manage the patient's post-operative pain.
"Although opioids are extremely effective, they also are extremely addictive," said Northwestern's John A Rogers, who led the device's development. "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."
Although the new device might sound like science fiction, it leverages a simple, common concept that everyone knows: evaporation. Similar to how evaporating sweat cools the body, the device contains a liquid coolant that is induced to evaporate at the specific location of a sensory nerve.