Richard Little: Clinical trial for easing chronic pain gets underway in Auckland


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Sufferers of chronic pain often experience long waits to see a specialist and can become reliant on heavy, sometimes addictive, drugs - but what if there is another way?
Researchers at Auckland University of Technology (AUT) and Waitematā District Health Board (DHB) are testing just that.
New Zealand-based health tech company Exsurgo has created a medical device, called Axon, which is being tested on 116 chronic pain patients across Auckland.
If successful, it could be rolled out to hospitals and medical clinics across the globe by mid-next year.
The helmet-like device looked like part of a video game, and in a way it was.
Over the past five years, mechanical engineers have developed the helmet combining traditional neuroscience with hi-tech computer science. It allowed patients to see their own brainwaves on a tablet.
Patients then engaged in neurological exercises in the form of animated games to encourage them to concentrate on brain movement.
Each session took about 35 minutes and sessions were repeated four times a week in the first eight weeks.
Exsurgo chief executive Richard Little said initial research showed Axon could change lives and he wanted the device to be made affordable and accessible to all New Zealanders battling chronic pain.
"We know many people struggle to get help. Chronic pain could cause massive issues with stress, anxiety, sleep and often patients could slip into major depression because they couldn't do the things they loved."
Exsurgo chief executive Richard Little wants to make chronic pain treatment more accessible and affordable. Photo / Supplied
One in five people lived in chronic pain worldwide, and some of those were left unable to enjoy the activities they loved or even continuing working.
The crippling condition was understood to be costing New Zealand's health system up to $14.9 billion a year, according to a 2018 report.
The device had already been tested on a dozen patients in the UK. Every single person in that trial received some benefit and three-quarters found a greater than 30 per cent improvement which was better than most drugs, Little said.
"We had a lady with a muscular spinal injury who started horse riding again, it had always been her passion and she hadn't ridden in 20 years," he said.
"Another woman who hadn't be able to write because she had psoriatic arthritis which causes swelling in the fingers, was finally able to."
Little said not only did those patients have less pain but they had less stress and were able to sleep better.
UK-based spinal specialist Nick Birch, who had worked in the field for 30 years, saidchronic pain placed a huge toll on patients and their families, and was difficult to manage.
UK-based spinal specialist Nick Birch, who had worked in the field for 30 years, said chronic pain placed a huge toll on patients and their families. Photo / Supplied
"The results from this trial showed that brain training may provide an easy-to-use, very-low-risk home-based solution for managing chronic pain."
However, Canterbury DHB pain medicine physician John Alchin said it was really important not to "count your chickens before they hatch".
"It's like expecting to win lotto when you've just paid for your ticket, results aren't in yet and it will take years."
He said while he was quick to throw cold water on this research, changing neuropathways through learning and biofeedback was a good idea.
"This is really exciting research ... my suspicion is in 20 to 50 years' time, not five years away but decades away, you may well get non-invasive external brain stimulation through magnets like this, it's very promising research but it's a long slow process."
Alchin said including a placebo controlled group was a crucial part of the research because pain was subjective.
Half of the participants in the trial would receive a "sham treatment" and theconsulting clinicians wouldn't know who was and who wasn't receiving the active treatment, Little said.
"The design of the chr...

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