A review and retrospective study on the effectiveness of scrambler (stimulation) therapy to reduce noncancer-related neuropathic pain syndromes, with apparent, maximal pain relief achieved at 1 to 2 weeks.
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Minimizing the incidence of medication dependence in patients with chronic neuropathic pain (NP) poses significant difficulty for treating physicians. A recent increase in accidental deaths related to prescription opioid use has boosted the investigation of novel techniques for the treatment of chronic pain.1 In addition to the risk of opioid dependence, chronic pain patients suffer from a wide range of secondary medical conditions, including mental health difficulties and physical disabilities.2 Given the need for simultaneous treatment for chronic pain and associated comorbid conditions, pharmacological interventions alone are often inadequate when managing complex chronic NP syndromes.3
Scrambler therapy alleviates chronic pain relief with a novel, noninvasive stimulation. Photo credit: Edmond Boese, MD, Eagle, ID
Efforts to minimize risk of harm to chronic NP patients and their families prompted the development of noninvasive and nonpharmacological interventions.4 This trend toward more comprehensive and personalized standards of care will likely aid in appropriately relieving pain in patients suffering from NP syndromes, and will allow physicians to more directly address any associated medical conditions.
Among the novel alternative treatments for chronic NP syndromes is a patient-specific neurostimulative technique called scrambler therapy (ST). Scrambler therapy uses a noninvasive transcutaneous electrostimulation device that has shown promise for providers and patients seeking alternatives to traditional pharmacological pain relief techniques. Scrambler therapy works by introducing a pleasant sensation that acts as a distraction by sending a new message to nerve fibers that were used to receiving pain signals.
This retrospective review aims to shed light on the nature and extent of pain relief experienced during and across stimulation visits. The authors hypothesize that ST will reduce pain ratings for patients with a variety of chronic NP syndromes across and within stimulation visits.
Scrambler Therapy Promises Sustained Relief From Chronic Pain
Scrambler therapy was designed primarily as a method for treating cancer-related pain syndromes like chronic chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN).5Researchers explored the application of ST as a way of alleviating pain in cancer patients when metastases in the epidural space prevented use of nerve blocks and opioids from offering sufficient relief, and when adverse side effects prohibited achievement of adequate pain relief.
A preliminary case series reported findings of effective pain relief for 3 patients who were affected by severe cancer pain.6 In a separate pilot study of patients with CIPN, ST reduced pain scores by 53%, tingling by 44%, and numbness by 37%.7 This same study indicated that pain-relieving benefits of ST were sustained through 10 weeks of follow-up care. In another study, Coyne and colleagues measured changes in pain level on the Numerical Pain Rating Scale (NPRS)—a pain rating scale with 0 corresponding to “no pain” and 10 corresponding to “worst pain imaginable.” They found that when cancer patients were allowed to mark decimal points, pain ratings decreased from 6.6 before treatment to 4.6 over 3 months.8
Initial success in alleviating cancer-related NP syndromes allowed ST to emerge as a potentially successful treatment for a broader category of NP syndromes, including postherpetic neuralgia, low back pain, polyneuropathy, and peripheral neuropathy.4 Marineo et al aimed to directly compare ST to guideline-based drug therapy for patients grouped into a larger category of poly- or mono-radiculopathy.4 This randomized pilot study provided preliminary evidence that the neurostimulative technique may successfully alleviate pain better than pharmacology, reporting a mean rate of pain reduction of 91% in the first month of ST.4 As personalized noninvasive treatments develop, growing evidence has been presented in favor of these devices to successfully alleviate chronic pain over time.7,9
In a recent examination of ST, this method produced a reduction in chronic pain from a pretreatment score of 7.41 to 1.60 pain score (based on NPRS) following 10 sessions of treatment.9 This comprehensive study also divided patients into several broad categories of chronic pain, ultimately suggesting that the ST’s efficacy may be dependent on pain type. While promising, these pain rates and time frames for pain relief in patients with general chronic pain syndromes differed from those reported in the studies examining ST in a population of CIPN patients.7,8
Reports of inconsistent rates and time spans for achieving pain reduction reflected an urgent need for further research concerning the mechanism and efficacy of ST. Of particular interest to researchers was identifying the length of time necessary for ST to achieve consistent, maximal benefit. Additional considerations in pursuing this research included whether specific types of NP syndromes, pain locations, and severity levels were better suited to favorable treatment response with ST.
This retrospective review was conceived to bolster the current evidence basis by examining the efficacy of repeated ST treatments over time through a lens of specific NP conditions.
Pain Relief From ST Assessed Across Multiple Conditions
A retrospective chart review was conducted among 25 patients who received ST as administered by a neurologist between 2014 and 2015 at an outpatient pain management clinic in Hopewell, New Jersey.10 Basic demographic factors, including age and sex, were gathered. Pain-related data was also collected for pain diagnosis or classification, areas of pain, and descriptive characteristics of reported pain. Concomitant medications and pre- and post-stimulation blood pressure were noted.
Stimulation treatment details were gathered, including side effects, frequency (volume) of stimulation, location of treatment, dates of treatment, and number of treatments. Institutional review board approval was obtained for this chart review,10 which met compliance standards and ethical guidelines set by the participating institution.