A recent report from the CDC reveals that approximately 52 million Americans suffer from chronic pain in 2021, making it a widespread health issue in our country. Chronic pain cases are increasing at a faster rate than diagnoses of other chronic conditions such as diabetes, depression, and high blood pressure. The majority of individuals who develop chronic pain continue to experience it even after a year, with more than 17 million Americans facing high-impact chronic pain that affects their daily functioning and restricts basic activities.
Part of the prevalence of chronic pain can be attributed to the inadequate current standard of care, which mainly relies on opioids and invasive surgeries, leaving limited options for patients. It is necessary to change this standard and accommodate innovative technologies that have proven effective in treating chronic pain for certain individuals after other methods have failed. Policymakers and insurers should ensure that qualifying patients have access to these treatment options.
The undertreatment of chronic pain has serious consequences, as it is the leading cause of disability in the United States and often leads to depression and anxiety among sufferers. Additionally, chronic pain incurs a substantial economic burden, surpassing the costs of heart disease and cancer combined, estimated at a staggering $635 billion.
In order to alleviate individual suffering and reduce strain on the healthcare system and economy, providing access to innovative interventional therapies for chronic pain is crucial. Researchers have recently developed medical devices that offer targeted therapy for specific types of chronic pain. For example, spinal cord stimulators can interrupt pain signals and relieve leg and back pain in patients with moderate lumbar spinal stenosis. Other devices utilizing cold therapy, ultrasound, and virtual reality are also being developed to alleviate chronic pain. While these alternatives may not be effective for everyone, those who benefit from them have advantages over traditional treatments. The latest medical devices for chronic pain are minimally invasive, allowing for outpatient insertion and minimal side effects.
In contrast, traditional treatments such as surgery or opioids are associated with greater risks and complications. Prescription opioid overdose deaths have dramatically increased in the past two decades. Patients who qualify for newer chronic pain interventions may avoid these risks.
Clinical studies have shown that medical devices can significantly reduce pain, improve functionality, and reduce reliance on opioids. For instance, a comparison study found that patients treated with an interspinous spacer device like Vertiflex had fewer complications and a lower likelihood of requiring subsequent surgery compared to common back surgeries. Although this subset of patients represents a smaller portion of those experiencing chronic pain, their positive experiences indicate promising progress in the development of minimally invasive treatments.
Another innovative therapy that utilizes electromagnetic pulses to trigger the body's natural pain relief mechanism resulted in a 36% reduction in pain after a single treatment session.
While these device-driven treatments offer hope for specific groups of chronic pain patients, many individuals do not have access to them due to lack of coverage by private insurers.Insurance plans often refuse to cover interspinous spacer devices due to doubts about their long-term effectiveness. However, it should be noted that these devices are relatively new, and there is currently insufficient long-term evidence available. The Vertiflex™ Procedure has received sanction from the Food and Drug Administration, and respected medical organizations like the Multisociety Pain Workgroup and North American Spine Society endorse the use of interspinous spacer devices. Furthermore, research indicates that they can lead to reduced long-term costs for patients.
In their pursuit of pain relief, some patients have resorted to paying for these medical devices out of their own pockets. Unfortunately, the majority of patients cannot afford to fund their own treatment. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Pain Foundation, more than 75% of patients stated that cost was a significant barrier preventing them from accessing pain treatment options.
Non-invasive and drug-free treatments have the potential to revolutionize how millions of Americans cope with chronic pain. The advantages of these medical devices are evident and supported by solid clinical evidence. It is crucial to ensure that patients have the means to access these treatments.