New research in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry points to a potential new option for chronic pain sufferers: the brain’s own natural painkillers. The study built off of previous research that indicated that electric stimulation reduces pain for migraine suffers. The new study tested the same technique on a patient with trigeminal neuropathic pain.
The research, conducted by Alexandre DaSilva (who is the director of the School of Dentistry’s Headache and Orofacial Pain Effort Lab at the University of Michigan) and his colleagues, tracked the release of mu-opioid in the brain when electric stimulation was applied. Mu-opioid is an active part of the pain-reducing process that is initiated by opiates. Only a small amount of electricity was applied – about 2 milliamperes, or 1% of the amperage used in electroconvulsive therapy (used for the treatment of psychiatric conditions).
In an article on Medical News Today, DaSilva was quoted as saying the electric stimulation, caused by electrodes attached to the skull, works by “stimulating the release of our (body’s) own resources to provide analgesia. Instead of giving more pharmaceutical opiates, we are directly targeting and activating the same areas in the brain on which they work.” The hope is that this technique will reduce pain more effectively than opiates while reducing the use of painkillers overall. In this study, the TN patient gained a higher tolerance for pain but no reduction in TN pain was reported after one session. The article estimates that repetitive treatments are needed to reduce TN pain, because that is what was found in an earlier study focused on migraines.
Another study has since been conducted using more patients, and though the results are still being analyzed, Medical News Today reports that “the initial results seem to confirm the [earlier] findings.” Further research will examine the long-term effects of electric stimulation and look at ways to better target specific areas of the brain.