Pain Relief Without Pills

According to recent estimates, 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. Pain management costs upward of $600 billion annually, not including the toll it takes on the emotional – and even financial – well-being of sufferers and their families. In addition, the overuse of prescription pain medications has become an ever-growing problem in the U.S. As a result, a great deal of research is centered on the development of treatments that reduce the need for opiates.

Electrical stimulation is one technology that has delivered some promising results. For example, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) which delivers electrical impulses directly to the nerves has been explored for some time as an alternative to drugs for certain types of pain.

However, a new technique is currently being developed that moves the stimulation site from the nerves to the brain. A recent study showed that stimulating the ventral tegmental area of the brain blocks the pain signals in the spinal cord. It also triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that controls the reward and pleasure centers of the brain. This has an analgesic effect and also helps regulate movement which is essential for recovering function. Since people who experience chronic pain often become depressed because they can’t do the things they used to do, this new approach could offer much-needed, long-term relief without the side effects of medications.

For information: J.C. Chiao, University of Texas at Arlington, Nedderman Hall 538, Box 19016, Arlington, TX 76019; email:; Web site: